Leader's speech, Norwich 1897
Sir William Harcourt (Liberal)
Commentary:In a departure from previous procedure Harcourt delivered this address not at the end of the meeting of the National Liberal Federation but before it had even begun. He spoke on March 18th, 1897, at the Agricultural Hall, a venue for 3000 people. The Times reported that the doors of the building were ‘besieged quite an hour before the time appointed for the commencement of proceedings’ and that the arrival of Sir Harcourt was the signal for ‘an enthusiastic outburst of cheering’. He was introduced by Lord Kimberly who praised Harcourt’s devotion to the Liberal cause, stressing the full recovery of the party from defeat, and adding that there was ‘nothing that would not encourage them by continual and united exertion to do all in their power to recover what he had no doubt they would recover, the old supremacy of the Liberal Party’. Then, as now, there were claims that the parties barely differed in policy, something Kimberly sought to refute, stressing clear policy differences. Harcourt refers to this in his opening statements. The speech is combative, very detailed in its criticism of the conduct (or lack thereof) of the Unionist coalition. After enthusing the party Harcourt attacks various bills, with particular attention to the attempts of the government to force through its second Education Bill by closure. This Bill granted public money to church schools with no stipulation of how it should be spent, and Harcourt was concerned by the degree of control the legislation gave the clergy over this money (the issue was thus connected to larger concerns with the relationship of the church to the state). In foreign affairs, Harcourt responds to the ‘Cretan question’. An insurrection against Ottoman control of the island and for union with Greece had led to conflict between Greece and the Ottomans, prompting the ‘great powers’ to attempt to broker a settlement. Harcourt particularly criticises the presumption that the maintenance of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire should be a guiding principle of policy. The concert of Europe had previously invoked this principle to justify its failure to prevent attacks upon Christians in Armenia, and was now using it to prohibit the annexation of Crete to Greece. Harcourt argues that the Powers involved had no concern for the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and in fact were using the principle as a cover for their own interests. The Times records that at the end of the speech Spence Watson moved a vote of thanks, after which the following occurred: “Sir W. Harcourt rose to reply and had just commenced when a person in the gallery exclaimed “May I ask a question?” (Voices – “No,” “Shut Up,” and “turn him out.”) Sir. W, Harcourt said, - I am not here canvassing tonight. (Much laughter.) A person in the hall then called out, “Mr. Chairman.” (Voices – “Shut up” and “sit down”) Sir. W. Harcourt. – No, we do want not the closure of coercion. (hear, hear). I only rose to say that the true reward of whatever exertions a man is able to make in public life is such a reception as you have given me tonight. One’s hope and one’s desire is to make oneself useful as far as one can in giving representation to what one believes to be the feeling of the country of which one is proud. If I have succeeded tonight in any small degree in that, as I hope from the reception you have given to the sentiment I have expressed I may not altogether have failed, then indeed I shall have had a great reward. I have delayed you already so long tonight that I will say no more, except to call upon my friend Mr. Price to propose to you the next resolution. (cheers).” The resolution was vote of thanks to Lord Kimberly, after which the proceedings terminated.
My Lords and Gentlemen, - I will say ‘My lords,’ too, because there are lords here, a rare commodity in the Liberal party and precious accordingly, and, what is more, there are two Norfolk peers in this assembly, one my friend and my contemporary, the Earl of Kimberley, through life one of the most faithful supporters of the Liberal party. From his youth to his age he has never swerved; among the faithless, he has always been faithful found; and he has spoken to you tonight words of weight and words of wisdom which are deserving to guide the judgment of the Liberal party. There is my friend Lord Battersea, and others are here. You must not expect me tonight to attempt a general review of all the political questions in which the Liberal party is interested. We have upon our hands at present a sufficient task in resisting that policy of reaction which is in full swing under the Tory majority. The general lines of Liberal policy are those with which a gathering like this is familiar, and the principles that have once been proclaimed by the Liberal party are never abandoned. If I were asked to define the great distinction between the Liberal and the Tory party it would be this - that the Liberal party never surrenders the principles that it has espoused, and that the Tory party always in the end adopts those principles. I would draw this distinction between what Lord Kimberley has said and what I am prepared to assert. In the lapse of time there is never a difference between the Liberal party and the Tory party; for it may be for a quarter of a century, it may be for half a century, the Liberal party contends for principles which the Tory party bitterly opposes, but at the end of that time they come together, for the Tory party always adopts the principles which the Liberal party has originated. With that general remark I shall ask you tonight to permit me to restrict the observations that I have to make to the present situation, and that is a sufficiently ample subject, I think, on which I may exhaust your patience.
The Condition of the Party
People generally prefer, I think, in the first instance to talk about themselves, and therefore I will say a word upon the condition of the Liberal party. Lord Kimberley has referred to it already. It happens to individuals, even of the most robust condition, to suffer sometimes from temporary ailments, and somewhere about a year and a half ago the Liberal party had a severe attack. Well, maladies are always depressing; some patients are apt to be more depressed than others. I have observed that in an illness of that description they become fretful and impatient. They complain of everybody and everything, and particularly of the physician. I do not think myself that I am of a pessimistic temperament, and I have a great faith in the recuperative power of a good constitution. It brings a man through a great many epidemics. Providence has endowed the Liberal party with a good constitution, and therefore it has recovered from the prostration of the political influenza from which it suffered in 1895, and here we are again, and as sound as ever we were. I never think it a good thing, after convalescence, to dwell too much upon the symptoms of the indisposition. It is quite enough for me that I find you here in rude health. When I observe the condition, the clinical condition, of the Liberal party I find the pulse is strong, the temperature is normal, the appetite is good, and the spirits are high. What more do you want? Let us go on our way rejoicing. We are in first-rate training. I am an old political trainer myself, and I reckon myself a good judge of condition. I know when a party is soft and when its condition is hard; and if you will take my word for it the Liberal party were never in finer condition than they are at this moment. They were never more fit. Lord Kimberley has referred to some trials we have had lately, and they are, I think, very promising as to future events. Well then let us go on as we have gone on before; let us go on with a Liberal party conquering and to conquer, a party that has never been beaten in the long run.
The Premature Decay of the Unionist Majority
This is all I want to say about ourselves. We need not trouble ourselves, I think, about the condition of the Liberal party; but, happy as we are ourselves, we are humane men, and we can feel for the misfortunes of others. The poet says, ‘Teach us to feel another’s woes.’ I can hardly add ‘To hide the fault I see.’ It is exactly upon that point that I desire to make a few remarks, but he must be a hard-hearted politician indeed who can view without a feeling of compassion the premature decay of the great Unionist majority. Such a promising youth - promising above everything - such great expectations, such a handsome fortune to start with, such a balance in hand at its Parliamentary bankers - and, with all this to the good, what a shocking bad hand it has made of it! They were gifted by the country with a mighty engine with which they were expected to turn out splendid stuff; but there is not a handloom weaver who would not be ashamed of the web of shabby work that they have turned out. See how they started. I have some diffidence in commenting upon dignified officials. It is always said that two of a trade never agree. I certainly should never think of criticising their capacity. No one, I am sure, would say that I have ever failed to do justice to my able successor, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. I left him a pretty handsome legacy as a token of my confidence and esteem. I cannot say that I think he has spent it to the best advantage; but that was not altogether his fault. My confidence in the Chancellor of the Exchequer rests upon the fact that he really is a bulwark against the rubbish of his own party. He has the sense and courage to knock Sir Howard Vincent and the fair trade party on the head, and, sitting between Mr. Balfour and Mr. Harry Chaplin, he holds up the nonsense of the bimetallists to the contempt it deserves. It is a great thing, depend upon it, to have a Second Lord of the Treasury to keep the First Lord of the Treasury in order. That is an office which the present Chancellor of the Exchequer admirably fulfils, but it is a little disappointing to some parties. It is not the millennium of soft money which was promised by the Bryanite candidates in the Lancashire election, and they are not altogether so pleased with it as I am. Well, as to the heads of the rest of the departments, they are very able, but I must say I think they are rather unfortunate men. There is the excellent Home Secretary, and he is denounced by his own party for the manner in which he administers the prerogative of mercy. There is the Secretary for War. He is a rash man. He has meddled with the Household Brigade, he has actually thought of sending the Guards abroad, and he might just as well have attempted to overthrow the Monarchy or the Church. And then there is the President of the Board of Trade. Why, the whole party rose up in a fury against him because in the case of Lord Penrhyn and his quarrymen he offered the good offices which were provided in the Conciliation Act of this great majority in order to settle quarrels between capital and labour. Then there is that great contingent the English garrison in Ireland, the loyal Irish landlords. They are ready to tear the Government to pieces because they have passed what they considered to be, or what the Government intended to be, a fair Bill towards the tenants in Ireland. And there are even men who are profane enough and daring enough to criticise the Colonial Secretary. Fancy a Unionist criticising Mr. Chamberlain because he is suspected - I do not know whether truly or not - to have a prejudice against filibustering. These are not the flouts of a factious Opposition. They are the groans of a disappointed party. They have discovered with disgust that the responsible Government dares not carry into effect their narrow views and their bigoted prejudices; that when it comes to action they are compelled perforce to adopt the principles of the Liberal party which they sincerely abhor and which they denounced at the general election. I will say something later on, if you will grant me your patience, upon questions of foreign policy, but I would now turn to the legislative performances of this great majority.
The Government’s Programme
They started with a splendid programme - I think the National Liberal Federation might be jealous of it, I mean in its volume, not in its quality. They talked of our having too multifarious a programme, but look at the illuminated card in Lancashire of the First Lord of the Treasury. I do not remember how many items it comprised; it was a very large card, very closely printed. I forget what the particulars were. I may be excused because we have never heard of any of them since. Yes, there is one I recollect. It was that all the School Board rates were to be paid by the Exchequer. That would be a useful thing to bear in mind when we come to discuss the forthcoming Bill of the Government for aiding the Board schools. They produced their Education Bill of last year; that was the first-fruits of the glorious majority. Well, the firstborn died in infancy! They say now, to excuse its fate, that it was too ambitious. It was such a precocious child, it came before its age. I myself, with some Parliamentary experience, have never known a measure of first-class importance produced by a powerful Government which perished under such a chorus of universal disapprobation. They say we destroyed it; they do us too much honour. It destroyed itself. It died after a five days’ debate, and that is the reason why they are taking very good care that their next Education Bill shall not be debated; and so exit the Education Bill of 1896, a perpetual monument of legislative incapacity. Now I will go to their finance. They found themselves in possession of a great surplus. The financial measures they had bitterly opposed and done their best to defeat, followed by a great revival of trade, put them in possession of a vast sum of money. Under such favourable circumstances it might have been expected that some relief would have been given to the overburdened taxpayers of this country. I doubt whether any instance could be found in which with so large a superabundance of money there has been no reduction of taxation. How did they dispose of that money? They squandered a good deal of it. They always do that; but they did make a special grant to one class of the community, and one class only. They gave two millions to what they are pleased to call the agricultural interest. That is a large mouthful, and it is an ambiguous thing; it is like autonomy - it may mean something or it may mean nothing. It did not mean anything to the agricultural labourer; he gets nothing out of it. That is no part of the agricultural interest. The British farmer, they say, would be benefited by it, but they admitted that if the good times come the money would pass from the farmer to the landlord. I am happy to think that in these eastern counties better times have come, and the money will go, as they admitted it would go, to the landlords. They arranged this Bill in such a manner - they always do arrange things in that manner - that the money went to those who wanted it least, and the dwellers in the towns, where the rates are far higher than they are in the country, have got no relief at all. That is Unionist finance. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will have a good surplus this year - I tell you that as a secret, because it is not yet announced - not as big as last year’s, but it will be a good lump sum. What will be done with it? Will there be any relief to the taxpayers of this country? Well, we shall see; but I do not advise you to increase your expenditure in the anticipation of it. That is a hint I will give you. But what we do know is this - that out of it is to be a gift of half-a-million of money to the Church. Their financial policy is always class legislation - legislation exclusively in the interest of the classes they favour. They have given two millions already to the land, and they are now going to give half-a-million to the Church, and if it turns out that after two years’ successive surpluses there is no relief to the general taxpayer of this country, I think that probably the country will come to the conclusion that it is time there was a change. Then there is the social legislation. This was to be a Government above all other things of social legislation. It was Mr Chamberlain’s once valued, now despised, department of parochial legislation. They had a Truck Bill, and a remarkable thing I observe is that at the contested elections the first thing a Tory candidate does is to pledge himself to repeal the Tory Truck Act. There is the Conciliation Act, which I have mentioned already. We find to our surprise that the Tory party is down upon the author of the Conciliation Act in his first attempt to put it into operation. There was this Session what was called the Safety of Boilers Bill, a thing to which the working classes attach great importance. Mr. Jesse Collings, the great friend of the people, got up, dressed in a little brief authority, and made a speech against the Boilers Bill, and we beat him by a majority of about sixty, principally consisting of those of his own party. That is all I can really remember of the social legislation of this great majority. All this is sinking into the minds of the people of this country. There is a feeling of blank dismay and disappointment among their own supporters at these miserable performances following upon those reckless and bloated professions by which they won the last election. This great majority is being found out. All Governments - and I have had experience of some - in turn fall short of the expectations that were formed of them, but most Governments have a honeymoon when all is mutual love and admiration. But this Government has had no honeymoon at all. There has been no mutual love and admiration from the beginning. There has been no billing and cooing, the refrigeration is beginning too soon, and the country which has embraced them with ardour is tired of them already. Well, they have had some painful domestic revelations. Lord Kimberley has referred to Walthamstow, Romford, Frome, and Halifax, and other places. I have seen some figures which show the results in fourteen constituencies which have been tested in by-elections, and these are all the constituencies which have been contested in by-elections, and also in 1892 and 1895. In 1892 in these fourteen constituencies there was a Liberal majority of 1,096; in 1895, in the reaction, there was a Conservative majority of 7,092; and in the by-elections since the last General Election there is a Liberal majority again of 1,072, having knocked down the Conservative majority and gone back again to the Liberal majority of 1892. I have spoken of the symptoms of the recovery of the Liberal party, and I think I have given you some evidence of it. Now, I have been amused to see that Mr. Balfour has ascribed these unfortunate miscarriages to the bigness of the Unionist majority to its over-grown size. He says, ‘Oh, it is so much easier to manage a small majority.’ Well, if that is their complaint, it is one from which they are fast recovering. I cannot help wishing we had a little of their complaint. I think we could have made a better use of it. That is the history of the first year’s performance of the great Unionist majority, a beggarly account of empty dishes; and now we come to this year, and we have got the Education Bill number two.
The Second Education Bill
I am not going to trouble you much with the particulars of that Bill, because it is the peculiarity of the Bill that it has no particulars at all, and it was framed with that particular purpose. It is a grant of public money from the pockets of the taxpayers of this country to private bodies without any reasonable conditions or provisions as to the proper application of that money. I undertake to say that that is an accura te description of the Education Bill. We have been endeavouring to put some particulars into the Bill. That they call obstruction. Now, the right of the House of Commons is to demand, and the duty of the Government is to give, full information upon the Bill to the House; and how do they start the debate? The Bill is in charge of two gentlemen of great ability, but with the singular recommendation that they know nothing of the practical subject with which that Bill is dealing; two gentlemen familiar with the Scotch system, which is a system of universal School Boards, but of the voluntary system in England they know nothing whatever. Nobody could have heard the speech of Mr. Balfour in which he opened that Bill without seeing that he was talking about a thing with which he had no acquaintance. We tried to get explanations, he gave us none, and the other night he said that he preferred the fluid method of dealing with the subject - the fluid method of treating the education of the people. It reminds me of what happened once, before I was in Parliament and when I was at the Parliamentary Bar, in a railway case. When you are making a new line you are called upon to deposit plans, and it is upon a certain datum line that the whole work depends. I asked the engineer what his datum line was, and he said, ‘Oh, I have got a fluctuating datum line.’ I need not say that the Bill was thrown out, as a Bill dependent upon the fluid method ought to be thrown out. We have heard of a house built upon the sand, but to build the education of the country upon a fluid basis is a thing which was left, I think, for Mr. Balfour to discover.
A Public and Parliamentary Scandal
The remarkable part of the matter is that upon the Government bench is sitting the man who does know all about it, the Vice-President of the Council on Education, but he has been closured from the very first, and he is not allowed to say a single word upon the subject. Why not? I will tell you why. Because he does know all about it. Now, this thing has been treated as a joke, but it is past a joke. In my opinion it is a public and Parliamentary scandal. It is an insult to the House of Commons, and it is an outrage on the administrative system of this country. There are departments highly paid whose business it is to have a special knowledge of the several subjects entrusted to them. The taxpayers of this country pay large sums of money, and pay them well and wisely, in order that they may have, and Parliament may have, the best information available upon all matters in which the people of this country are interested. And what would you think if the Attorney General was instructed to bring in a fluid Budget? What would be said if the Secretary of State for India introduced the Navy Estimates or Mr. Jesse Collings took charge of the Army?
This Bill is drawn up in a manner which no man can understand, and it is put into the hands of people who cannot explain it, and then the Bill is forced through by closure. Now, I spoke last year upon the manner in which the Government had dealt with closure. I told them that they would ruin the Session by it, and they did ruin it. Closure is like dram drinking or morphia; the more you indulge in it the less you can do without it. Last night was a shameful example. At 3 o’clock in the morning they insisted upon discussing whether these voluntary associations should be made compulsory associations, and they settled the matter by closure. You can hardly settle such a thing as making a voluntary association compulsory except by closure. You cannot very well do it by argument. It is said that closure has been only applied to trivial amendments. That is not true. I will give you one example. Perhaps the most important question with regard to these schools is whether there shall or shall not be an element of popular control. The Government excluded that from their Bill; it was necessary to have an instruction to admit the discussion. Speaker after speaker rose from the Tory benches to support our view of that subject, so much so that there was hardly room for us to get in. Mr. John Morley (Loud cheers) - I knew the mention of his name would give me time to breathe - moved the adjournment. I took the liberty to second it. I have not, I think, been intrusive, certainly not obstructive, on this Bill. But I should have liked to make some observations on that subject, and they closured me. (Cries of ‘Shame.’) Yes, I did not take it as a bad compliment to myself. I knew they were not closuring me - they did not care what I said - they were closuring the men of their own party because they could not stand their opposition. They might have been compelled to make an amendment, and they had resolved to have no amendments, in order that there shall be no report stage, contrary to all the principles of fair legislation, in accordance with which any Government that produces a Bill is always willing to discuss the particulars of that Bill, and to accept amendments which certainly ought to arise, and do arise, in the discussion of such a Bill. I can only describe the treatment of this Bill by the Government as a system of brutalising the House of Commons, and it is such bad management too. That is not the way to get a Bill through the House of Commons. You cannot drive a high-spirited horse in this fashion; you will only irritate it, and in time, you may depend upon it, it will give you a bad fall. We have some right to speak upon that subject. We were in a Government with a small majority. Our friend, Sir Henry Fowler, had the conduct of a Bill - a large Bill. They pretended it was unopposed. They did their best to defeat it, though they did not dare to divide against the second reading. And now let me just tell you about the way that Bill was treated. Sir Henry Fowler has been kind enough to give me this note: the Bill occupied forty-seven sittings of the House of Commons; thirty-four sittings were in Committee. The Opposition put down 1,025 amendments. The greater number of those were duplicates and out of order, but they moved 404. The 13th Clause, which simply related to charities, a subordinate clause - not the whole Bill, like the clause that we are now discussing - occupied six sittings. The 19th Clause, which related to the election of guardians, occupied seven sittings, and upon January 9th, 1894, Mr. Balfour wrote a letter to the Times newspaper, so proud of his performance that he said: ‘It was fought,’ these are his words, ‘It was fought line by line for seven days, and was finally debated and divided against as a whole.’ Now that is his boast of the way in which he treated that Bill, and the Government during these forty-seven days only moved the closure twice. Then there is the Bill I had something to do with - the Budget Bill. Well, that was a complicated Bill. It was a Bill, I suppose, as bitterly opposed as any Bill ever was in the House of Commons, and I passed that Bill through the House of Commons without employing the closure, and that is why that Bill stands and will stand. There is a feeling in the House of Commons, as there is a feeling everywhere amongst Englishmen, when a thing is fairly dealt with, or when it is not fairly dealt with; when opponents have been heard, when their arguments have been considered, when amendments have been accepted which are reasonable, why, then a measure of that kind, though opposed, is finally accepted, and does endure. This Education Bill has not been fairly dealt with and it will not endure.
The Voluntary Associations
We have endeavoured to obtain securities that this money shall be properly spent. That has been refused. We sought some definition of these voluntary associations which, by closure have been made compulsory. We are told it is an experiment. What an experiment. Conceive 500 necessitous ecclesiastics, suffering under an intolerable strain, raffling for £600,000; yes and compelled to raffle whether they want to raffle or not. Why, it would be like going into a voluntary school and throwing a bag of sugar plums upon the floor, which would very much, I fancy, disturb the denominational teaching of the class. I wonder what will be the favourite text at these diocesan gatherings of voluntary associations. I do not think the text will be, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ They say these voluntary associations are intended to advise the Education Department. No; they are intended to coerce the Education Department. They are to be sectarian associations, but there are sects and sects in the Church of England. I suppose the majority will prevail, but the clerical majority, I regret to say, in the Church of England today is not friendly to the principles of the Reformation. We have asked whether there is to be a lay element there. We have endeavoured to secure it; the Government have refused it. We are told this is to be an organisation of the Church party. We know what the Church party is and what it means. It is a sacerdotal party. It is the domination of the priesthood, and it is to endow that, at their discretion, that £600,000, unconditionally, of the taxpayers’ money is to be given out of the surplus of this year. We have asked that there shall be security that the money shall be applied to educational purposes alone; that has been refused. We have asked that subscriptions shall be maintained; that has been refused. Are those trivial amendments which ought to be closured? No, we have persevered, and we shall persevere to the end because, whatever happens in the House of Commons, whatever majority there may be, we are determined that this Bill and its true character shall be understood by the people of this country, and the more they gag, and the more they closure, the more clear will the comprehension of the country be of the motive by which the Government are actuated. Then we are told it is all unnecessary. The thing is to be left to the discretion of the Department. Yet they will not allow the man of the Department who is to exercise that discretion to say a syllable as to how the discretion is to be exercised. Why, Sir John Gorst is the only lay figure in the whole of this clerical scheme. I wish him joy of the position. He might throw some light on the composition of this fluid he is to administer. Just see the danger of this absolute discretion - the removal of all satisfactory securities. They might give you some chance of continuity of administration with Mr. Acland, or I may say that with Sir John Gorst you might look for a reasonable exercise of this uncontrolled discretion; but Mr. Acland is not there, and I am not quite sure that Sir John Gorst will always be there. You might see in his place Lord Cranborne or his distinguished brother, exercising this uncontrolled discretion, the discretion of a gentleman who said the other day that he regarded subscriptions to voluntary schools as blackmail - a remark echoed with the highest approbation by that well-known friend of education, the Bishop of Chester. Well, the Education Bill of this year is more mischievous even than that of last year. It will bring distraction into the whole educational system of this country, which was working admirably, which has answered well not only for the Board schools but for the Voluntary schools; and if the Government had only dealt fairly by both sets of schools together there would never have been any of the bad blood that has been bred. There never would have been any necessity for dealing with the House of Commons and for dealing with the Bill in the manner in which they have now been dealt with.
The Cretan Question
And now, if I have not exhausted your patience, I will say something upon the grave, the most grave situation of the foreign affairs of this country. We have asked for an explanation of the policy of the Government. Is there a higher right that belongs to the representatives of the people, whether it be in the House of Lords or in the House of Commons, than to ask the responsible Government of the country, who announce that they are going to take measures which amount to a declaration of war, to explain the policy which justifies the course they are about to pursue. But when I asked, a few days ago, in the House of Commons, whether they would state to the House, as the Government of France has stated to their Chamber, the policy and the reasons upon which it was founded, Mr. Balfour, with contempt, said ‘We are not going to take an example from a foreign country like France.’ That was the answer he gave me amidst the loud applause of his supporters. Well, I asked on Monday night whether the Government, after the French statement, had any announcement to make. Mr. Balfour gave me an answer obviously in the form of a Cabinet decision, that important communications were going on between the Powers, and that it would not be proper or possible to make a statement at that moment. We acquiesced. We were glad to hear that important communications were going on with the Powers, because we hoped and believed that they might lead to an amicable and peaceful solution; but at the same moment my noble friend Lord Kimberley asked the same question in the House of Lords. Was he told that communications were going on? Not at all. He was told that the blockade of Crete had been declared; and then this Government, that despised the notion of giving us the opportunity that was given in France of discussing this matter before the resort to arms was adopted, this Government actually stated to Lord Kimberley that if he wanted to know what the policy of the British Government was he must go and read the speech of the Minister of France. In my opinion no such disgraceful answer was ever before given by a British Minister to a British Parliament. It was a piece of cynical impertinence of which there is no example. In my opinion such an answer as that was an insult to Parliament. I hardly know the word to apply to a Government who should give such an answer as that. As Lord Kimberley has said, the whole of the policy of the Government of France was founded on the particular circumstances of the French people, of French interests, of French alliances, with which we have nothing in common whatever; and it is perfectly obvious from those speeches that the French people and the French Government did not love the policy, and that they would never have adopted it except on account of those overruling circumstances peculiar to their own country. To be put off, then, with no explanation of the proceedings upon which the English Government is entering, by a reference of that kind, is simply to deduce a policy at second hand. It was not even a policy at second hand, because as the policy of France was second hand also, so the policy of England was a policy at third hand, a policy worthy only of a third rate Power. And the English Parliament was expected to be satisfied with such an explanation as that. If we wanted to call it in question, what would be the form of the resolution I suppose it would be: ‘That this House disapproves the policy of the British Government as expounded by M. Hanotaux and M. Méline.’ Fancy such a resolution as that on the journals of the British House of Commons. In my opinion such treatment as that of a subject so grave is humiliating to a nation, and it is abject in a British Minister.
Lord Salisbury and the European Concert
This makes it necessary that we should consider what position it is that Lord Salisbury has occupied and does occupy in the concert of Europe. He gave us a pretty fair insight into it when he was obliged to explain his policy not in his own language, but referred us to the speeches of foreign ministers. This I will say, that I have never failed, nor has my friend Lord Kimberley nor any of the party, to give to the Government in office fair play, aye, and more than fair play, in support of their action as the chosen representatives of the nation. That halcyon of peace, the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, after the general election, proclaimed that all the elements of discord abroad would be immediately dispelled, and that at the voice of the Neptune of Downing Street there would be a great calm. Unfortunately since that period we have had nothing but a succession of hurricanes, and then the note was changed. He next said, ‘Oh yes, there are terrible storms, but the proof of a superb Foreign Minister is the grand way he gets out of them.’ But does he get out of them in a grand way? That is the question. I have given credit always to Lord Salisbury when it seemed that credit was due. (A Voice – ‘That is not often.’) Wait a minute. Where we have to condemn let us be just. I have never sought to weaken the hands of the Foreign Minister, to whatever party he belonged, when he was carrying out a policy which was worthy of the nation which he represented. In his dealings with America, in the arbitration treaty and the settlement of the quarrel about Venezuela, Lord Salisbury did well, and we applauded and we supported him in spite of the early errors in his management of the discussion. There he was acting alone, he was not acting under the dictation of foreign Powers. But then we were told that Lord Salisbury dominates the councils of Europe - that the concert waits upon his nod. What a fatal boast! Was the decision of the concert of Europe by which Armenia was abandoned to its fate - when the Christians were surrendered to the assassins from whom we had pledged our word to defend them - was that a decision inspired by Lord Salisbury? No, it was not. I do Lord Salisbury the justice to believe that he did what he could to avert this undying shame which has come upon Europe and to Great Britain. If the concert had forbidden those crimes, Armenia would have been saved. If the concert had blockaded Turkey as they are doing Crete those horrors at which, as Lord Salisbury said, the world turned pale, might have been averted. Lord Salisbury says, ‘I could do nothing because the concert would not have it.’ But that is not dominating the council. Lord Salisbury has apologised for his failure by pleading his impotence, but you cannot rely upon your impotence and at the same time claim your predominance. If Lord Salisbury really did dominate and does dominate the councils of Europe there can be no language too strong to condemn his conduct. If he is to be excused it is on his own allegation that he could not help himself and that he is the victim of an irresistible mandate, and he must get some foreign minister to explain it for him. To my mind this nation has never been exposed to greater humiliation than when it finds itself chained and coerced, by the menace of wars in which it has no concern, to abstain from doing that which it is under the highest obligations of honour to do and is compelled to do the things which its conscience condemns. What a spectacle! The Prime Minister of England sitting in the midst of the concert of Europe like the cat in the adage, ‘letting I dare not wait upon I would.’ For Heaven’s sake let the friends of Lord Salisbury acquit him of all responsibility for a policy which he does not pretend to defend, and let his supporters rely upon his impotence and not brag of his predominant power. There was a moment in the concert of Europe when Lord Salisbury stood out last summer against the blockade of Crete; he stood out and prevailed, and if he had stood out now he would have prevailed. Concerts of the Powers of Europe are numerous in the records of history. They may be good things or they may be bad things - that depends on the principles on which they are founded and the objects at which they aim. At the commencement of this century, after the great French war, there was a combination which was called by the title of the Holy Alliance. The principles of the Holy Alliance were these - to maintain peace in Europe and the integrity of all the despotic thrones. That was the basis of the Holy Alliance. The then Tory Government of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Castlereagh declined to enter it or to have anything to do with it. That is exactly the principle which is put forward in the forefront of this concert. The Powers then talked of the Holy Alliance and the peace of Europe, but the real object was to guarantee despotism.
The Integrity of the Ottoman Empire
You have heard from the trained experience of my noble friend, who has for so many years served this country in responsible positions, you have heard from him the opinion that he has formed, and which is shared by all his colleagues. I speak for them, too, and I am sure I speak for you all - that we have done with the integrity of the Ottoman Empire; that we will be parties to no policy which takes that principle for its basis. And yet that is the avowed basis of the present concert of Europe. What is it the French Minister, who is our only authority, says on that subject? I will quote you his words. He said ‘It rests on two essential ideas: the integrity of the Ottoman Empire is the principle, and the concert of the Powers is the means.’ That is sufficiently distinct. He goes on: ‘This is why Europe in its wisdom refuses the annexation of Crete to Greece - it would be a breach of the Ottoman Empire.’ Lord Salisbury has sent us to Caesar and to Caesar we have gone. There is the exposition of the principle of the concert of Europe. I have no respect for the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and yet that is the preamble of the Note addressed by Great Britain and the rest of the Powers to Turkey the other day. In my opinion the pursuit of such an object is contrary to the convictions and to the conscience of the British nation. It is not an object for which we are prepared to use the forces of the Crown, either alone or at the bidding of any other Power. It was this principle of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire which was put forward in order to justify the betrayal of the Armenians, by which all the pledges which Europe had given, and England had given in particular, were falsified. Yes, which were falsified, because it was said it would be a breach of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, a breach far more to be honoured than the observance. That is the first result of this basis of the concert. It is, as I have just read to you from the words of the French Minister, in the name of this same principle that the annexation of Crete to Greece has been prohibited under the threat of universal war. And by whom is it prohibited? As Lord Kimberley has reminded you, by Russia, who took from Turkey more than half her European dominions and a great part of her Asiatic territory; by Austria, who took Herzegovina and Bosnia; by France, who took Tunis; by Germany, who says she has no interest in the matter at all; and by England, who possessed itself of Cyprus and Egypt. These are the Powers who, in the name of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, have betrayed Armenia, and are about to blockade Crete. The whole thing is a pretence, as my noble friend has said. It is a pretence; yes, it is hypocrisy; it is a sham. No one believes it, no one desires it. They are not thinking of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire at all; they are only thinking of what each of them will get out of its spoils. In my opinion, every breach of that integrity is so much gain for mankind. No one has condemned this policy more loudly than Lord Salisbury. He has said, and said truly, that the policy we have pursued for so many years was an error, a mischievous error, and that we have been putting money on the wrong horse. Well, I hope that form of wager will be pronounced to be internationally illegal. Who is going to war for the integrity of the Ottoman Empire? Certainly not Great Britain. No Government that proposed it would survive for a day. If the Powers are so fearful of war, and so ardent for peace, why do not they keep the peace? It is so easy not to cut one another’s throats. Therefore, why should we be told that if we do what we have undertaken to do for Armenia, if we rejoice that Greece has delivered Crete - why should we be told that the consequence of this is that all these great and peace-loving Powers will instantly set to work to kill one another. That is to me a proposition totally unintelligible. On the 9th November, 1895, we thought it was all right. Lord Salisbury made a speech at the Guildhall, and declared that the concert of Europe was unanimous in its resolution to enforce reforms in Turkey. He invoked the judgment of Providence against the Sultan. Well, Providence, from Lord Salisbury’s point of view, was not expected, I imagine, to guarantee the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Very much the reverse. He indicated coercive measures against Turkey, and we did believe Lord Salisbury had a potent and beneficial influence in the concert of Europe, and we applauded and supported him then. Then the whole thing was changed in 1896, and he declared his impotence, that he could do nothing because the concert would neither do nor allow anything to be done for Armenia. And Lord Salisbury said he submitted because he had to submit. I do not say he could have done otherwise in the circumstances in which he found himself. The integrity of the Ottoman Empire was too much for him then. Then came the case of Crete. After a brief remonstrance, Lord Salisbury found himself obliged to concur in a pottering scheme, framed on the integrity principle, which ignominiously failed, as it was sure to fail, because it was founded on the notion that Turkey could or would be reformed. The Sultan, whose integrity was guaranteed, laughed at the concert, and he laughs at them still. He laughs with impunity because they proclaim that if anyone meddles with him they will wage a universal war. But if they had ever been as ready, as I said before, to blockade Turkey as they have been to blockade Crete, they might have done something for the good of mankind; but when it becomes a question of coercing the Turks, then they say, ‘God forbid! We shall all go to war with one another.’
The Action of Greece
But while the six Ambassadors together at Constantinople and their representatives at Crete were fumbling and pottering and doing nothing there came in another Power - not a great Power, but a small Power, a brave Power, a free Power - which dared everything for the emancipation of its oppressed compatriots, and Greece has achieved the object she had in view, and has rescued the Cretan people from the heel of the Turk, and has dispensed, we hope for ever, with his integrity. And now it is Greece that is to be coerced, and the British Fleet, that Fleet of which we are all so justly proud, is to be an instrument in the coercion of Greece. Well, the Powers may destroy Greece. They have the might, Greece has the right, but her fame and her name and her work will endure. Mark this great difference between the case of Armenia and that of Greece. The case of Armenia was sad enough, but there at least we were only the passive and reluctant accomplices in the fate of that unhappy race. But here we are to be the active agents of a policy which is not ours. In the name of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire we are bidden to crush the champions of an oppressed people. Is it not time that we should take our stand? What, we ask, what are to be the limits of our submission and our co-operation in this anti-crusade? Are we to be ordered by other Powers to take arms and strike down any people who may endanger that precious treasure, the integrity of the Ottoman Empire? If so we shall have enough to do. It will be an honourable task and one worthy of the British nation! It is easy for us to speak, but it is for Greece in this crisis of her fate to decide what she is to do. We ought not to forestall her judgment. We ought to say and do nothing which shall imperil her safety and her fortune. In her last Note, as Lord Kimberley has reminded you, she complied with almost all the demands made upon her. She has suspended her claim for annexation and leaves that to the judgment ultimately of the Cretan people. She has consented to withdraw her fleet. She has offered to place her troops under the control of the Powers. To these offers of accommodation - these fair offers - no reply has been given. (‘Shame.’) I say it is a shame. They have not attempted to make terms with Greece. Perhaps no reply was permitted. That, I think, is very probable, and the only answer, as we heard in the House of Lords last night, to these proposals of Greece has been the declaration of blockade. We do not know what a day may bring forth, but we pray that this shame may yet be averted. It is Greece, and Greece alone, that has given freedom to Crete. But at least we can enter our protest in this great representative gathering of the Liberal party, in the name of this great and free nation, against our being made the unwilling partners in a policy of which the sole practical outcome has been the fate of Armenia and the coercion of Greece.