1832-07-20 - Robert Peel
The right hon. gentleman stated that the present Government had found themselves bound hand and foot by the engagements of their predecessors, who consented to guarantee a loan of £800,000 in aid of Prince Leopold, on his election to the throne of Greece. The right hon. gentleman had no right to say that the hands of himself and coadjutors were tied by the last Ministers. They were no parties to the original Treaty of 1827; but when they came into office they found themselves compelled to fulfil the treaties made by their predecessors. The Duke of Wellington, in 1830, three years after the treaty had been made, and not very long after he came into power, was engaged in the consideration of the Greek question. Prince Otho of Bavaria was then proposed as the Sovereign of Greece, and the Duke of Wellington objected to the appointment of that prince on account of his youth, he being then not more than fourteen. After considerable discussion, the Powers parties to the treaty agreed to the nomination of Prince Leopold, and the question of pecuniary aid was proposed.
The Duke of Wellington said the Government of England had never given pecuniary aid in such a case, and refused to accede to the proposition. Prince Leopold then applied to the three sovereigns and declared he would not accept the throne of Greece unless the money were advanced. The Government of the Duke of Wellington, being anxious to establish a sovereign on the throne of Greece, did, at last, reluctantly concur with Russia and France, rather than, by withholding their consent from the proposed arrangement, deprive Greece of the services of Prince Leopold and separate the policy of this country from that of France and Russia. The right hon. Secretary might have contended that the present Government found themselves bound to guarantee a loan to Prince Leopold; but he was not warranted in saying that they were pledged by the acts of a former Government to guarantee a loan to any other prince. To come to the question immediately before the committee, he admitted that it was a case involved in considerable difficulty. He could conceive that circumstances might be established which would compel him to acquiesce in the payment of the money to Russia. He had some doubts as to whom the money was payable, and as to the justice of the arrangements into which this country was about to enter. These doubts might, however, be removed by explanation; and he must say, that while England retained possession of the colonies wrested from Holland she ought not to be very astute in finding reasons for excepting herself from the terms of her contract. With the information at present before the House, he was not prepared to state whether the payments were due to Holland or to Russia, but to one or other they were, in his opinion, due. If his vote were to imply a decided opinion that the money was not due to Russia, he would not give it. The right hon. gentleman assented--and it was an important admission--to the opinion he had formerly expressed, that the obligation of this country arose out of mixed considerations. His impression was, that there was a doubtful claim on this country, arising out of the convention of 1815; but he had admitted that there might be other considerations, independently of the convention, which would justify Ministers in promising to pay the money to Russia; that if they could show him that the payment of this money would enable them to maintain the peace of Europe, and to bring the pending negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion, he was prepared to give them his support. But why did the Ministers press a vote, when they were unable to give the House satisfaction upon these points? It was clear, from the right hon. gentleman's admission, that this question depended on mixed considerations; but he objected to being called upon to confirm the arrangement until he was satisfied, by the production of documents, of the extent of each of these mixed considerations.
The negotiations were not complete, and they were, perhaps, the most important for the honour of England, for the independence of small states, and for the general tranquillity of Europe, in which this country was ever engaged. The right hon. gentleman said that the Government which preceded the present determined on the separation of Belgium from Holland. Here again he was incorrect. The former Ministers were called upon to interfere as mediators. In compliance with the Treaty of 1815, the King of Holland applied to the great Powers for counsel. England at once told him that she was not prepared to assist him in re-establishing by force his authority over Belgium; but when the late Ministers left office it had never been decided that Belgium must, of necessity, be transferred from the dominion of the House of Nassau. He had even some recollection that the present Prime Minister had been taunted in the Belgic Chamber of Deputies for having expressed a hope which pervaded almost every British mind, that Belgium might be established as a separate kingdom under the authority of a prince of that illustrious family. That alone was sufficient to prove that the complete independence of Belgium of the House of Orange was not decided upon when the present Ministers entered office. But further, at the very time when he and his colleagues resigned office, an hon. gentleman [Sir J. C. Hobhouse] had a notice of a motion in the book, the object of which was to compel the Government to explain their supposed conduct in favouring, not the separation of Belgium from Holland, but the King of Holland against his revolted subjects.
But to return to the ground on which he objected to being pledged to the arrangement now proposed--namely, that he was in possession of no information respecting the negotiations which were now being carried on. What course had the Government pursued with respect to Greece? The loan to Prince Otho had been guaranteed for a considerable time, and yet the House had not been called upon to ratify the treaty; and the reason assigned by the noble lord for this delay was, that Government wished first to lay upon the table of the House every protocol connected with the negotiations. If Ministers pursued this conduct with respect to the Greek loan, why did they call upon the House to sanction the proposed arrangement with respect to Russia, without information? It might be said that the money was now due, but it had been due in July, and was not then paid. No further payment would be due until January, by which time, in all probability, pending negotiations would be brought to a close. Why, then, force the House now to express an opinion? He could not conceive what answer could be made to this question, in a parliamentary point of view. Was there ever an instance in which Parliament had been called upon to vote public money, arising out of negotiations, whilst they were yet pending? During the time these negotiations had been carried on, he and his friends had abstained from expressing any opinion concerning them, and had brought forward no motion calculated to embarrass the Government. And yet, before the negotiations were concluded, the Government called upon the House to vote the money. He made no objection to the amount. He did not deny that his impression was that there might be good and sufficient reason for the payment of this money, although it was not to be found on the face of the treaty; but he contended that it was contrary to all parliamentary custom to call upon the House to pronounce an opinion on the subject before it was put into possession of any information. The object of the arrangement professedly was, to induce Russia to unite her policy with ours, to preserve the balance of power and the peace of Europe. He asked whether the measures which Ministers were pursuing were likely to preserve the peace of Europe? In the second article of the treaty, now upon the table, Russia engaged, if the arrangements at present agreed upon should be endangered, not to enter into other arrangements without the concurrence of England. The arrangements were in danger at the present moment. Negotiations, it might be said, were yet pending; but, if that were a complete answer against the giving of information, it was also complete against calling upon the House to vote the money.
Had the ratifications of the treaties of 1831 been accompanied by any reserve? If so, ought this important point to be concealed? In the whole of Europe the English House of Commons was the only place where no information was to be obtained on these points. Communications had been made to the Chambers of Holland and Belgium; every foreign newspaper had contained authentic copies of documents which were most important in explaining the policy pursued at different periods of the negotiations; the House of Commons, however, possessed not a tittle of information on the subject. This course was according to precedent, because the negotiations were pending; but it was equally in conformity with precedent that, under these circumstances, the House ought not to be called upon to pledge itself to the payment of the money. It had been stated in an official newspaper, published in Holland, that Russia accompanied the ratification with an important reserve. The treaty before the House contained twenty-four articles, the execution of which was guaranteed by the contracting parties; but those articles, as far as the distribution of territory was concerned, could not be acted upon until Holland and Belgium should sign and ratify another treaty. The first question, then, was, Had Belgium and Holland signed the treaty on which the execution of the other depends? The answer was, No; they had not. Under these circumstances it was practising a delusion on Parliament to talk of the treaty being ratified. It was well known that Holland insisted on the modification of three articles contained in this treaty. She insisted on not being compelled to abandon Luxembourg--on not being compelled to permit the free access of Belgic navigation to artificial canals--and on not being compelled to permit the Belgians to make the military roads through the new territories assigned to them. It was premature to enter into the question whether Holland was right or wrong in insisting on these points; but it was a notorious fact that Russia had accompanied her ratification of the treaty with this reserve--that Holland shall not be compelled to consent to the articles which she objected to. This, he might remark, was a proof that the policy of Russia was not concurrent with ours. It was evident that, if this reservation of Russia were insisted upon, it would be fatal to the treaty, and therefore it was not treating the House fairly to make the dry statement that Russia had ratified the treaty, without informing it whether her ratification was accompanied with such a reservation.
The House ought, also, to be made acquainted with the reasons why the treaty was not ratified at the appointed time. It was stipulated that the ratifications should be exchanged within six weeks after the signing of the convention. The signatures were affixed to the convention on November 16; but, from a paper signed by Mr. Pemberton, by order of the Lords of the Treasury, it appeared that the ratifications were not received on June 4. That was an additional proof that the policy of Russia was not concurrent with our own. Was it so, when Russia ratified with a reservation? Did that reservation still exist? If so, was it consistent with our policy? It was a mere mockery of the functions of the House of Commons to require it to fulfil the conditions of this convention whilst Ministers were unable to explain the state in which the negotiations stood at the present moment. It had been justly observed by his hon. friend the member for the University of Oxford, that it was a critical day. July 20 was the day by which it had been intimated to Holland by France and England that the treaty must be signed. This, at least, was understood to be the case. Documents had been published which contained a threat that force would be applied to compel Holland to give her consent to the treaty. Holland said that she would ratify the treaty provided the articles to which she objected were altered. The conference replied, 'You shall ratify first, and try to get the articles altered afterwards.' Holland very naturally objected to this arrangement, because she thought that, when she applied to Belgium to alter the objectionable articles, Belgium would reply that the treaty had been ratified, and Holland must be bound by it. This was the state of the case; and the House of Commons ought to have been consulted before any naval armament was undertaken, or any demonstration of a warlike nature made. The House of Commons had a right to know the causes of war, if war were intended: and he considered a hostile attack upon Holland, by whatever name qualified, substantially the same as war. The right hon. Secretary for Ireland had taken a rather sanguine view of our domestic affairs, and plumed himself particularly on the improved conditions of Ireland at present, as compared with that of 1830. He should not envy him the merit of any success which might have attended his efforts to ameliorate the condition of that country, if he could bring himself to believe that it had taken place; but, from all the information which he had the means of procuring with regard to the state of Ireland, he was induced to think, that that country was never in a situation calculated to excite greater alarm than at the present moment. But with respect to foreign affairs, with respect to those countries which were the immediate subject of consideration, we could not long be kept in suspense. Peace or war had arrived, which must, within a very short time, terminate either in peace or in an interruption of peace. Again, then, he said, let them consider well the ground of war; if war they were about to have with Holland--war to compel her, against her will, to do something inconsistent with her honour, or with her independence. Beware of that; England had before been in alliance with France against Holland. Remember the relation in which she had stood towards that country--remember the period--that disgraceful period--in the reign of Charles II, from the year 1670 to the Peace of Nimeguen in 1678; look to the alliance between England and France at that disgraceful period, remember the terms of that alliance, and the relations in which we had stood towards France, and towards the House of Nassau. He remembered the indignant terms in which Mr. Fox spoke of the disgraceful and unnatural alliances which this country entered into with France at that period. He said that his blood boiled at the contemplation of the disgraceful policy which was pursued by this country. He conjured the Ministers to satisfy the House, if they were about to enter into alliance with any Power to coerce a third, of the justice of that alliance. Let them bear in mind what could be done by a gallant people attached to freedom, who now seemed to rally round their Sovereign with the unanimous determination to encounter every extremity rather than submit to injustice or disgrace. Remember the siege of Haarlem--remember the exploits that had been achieved on that and numberless other occasions by the same gallant nation. Before Ministers asked the House to sanction a new crusade against Holland, implying approbation of their policy, let them accede at least to this reasonable request, that they would either afford the House information respecting the nature of our foreign relations, or postpone this vote. These were the grounds upon which he protested against being made a judge in the question at present before the House. He had not the necessary information to enable him to give a vote upon it. The present agony and crisis of Holland was not the time for calling upon the House for a ratification of this treaty. Let it be remembered, that this vote was for the postponement of the question, and not for its rejection. The course which he, for one, should pursue, should the House determine to ratify this treaty, would be to vote a negative, and leave the responsibility of the transaction upon those who proposed it; but with a solemn protest, on his part, against the unfairness and injustice of the proceeding.