Sir, this debate has lasted for some time, and, as was to be expected, many and various opinions have been expressed by those hon. gentlemen who have taken part in it. I hope it will not be supposed that, on the one hand, I necessarily agree or acquiesce in those opinions which I do not expressly mention for the purpose of saying I differ from them, or, on the other hand, that I differ from those opinions in which I do not go out of my way to express agreement.
I think that in the actual state of Europe the House will hold me justified if I do not think it expedient to go into a general detailed discussion of the political situation, and the more so as that situation is changing not merely from week to week, but from day to day, and I may say, from the telegrams received, almost from hour to hour. I shall confine myself, therefore, as closely as I can, to the questions which have been put to me in the course of this discussion. First of all comes the question of the hon. member for Wick [Mr. Laing].
He wants some guarantee that no intervention is contemplated on our part. He wants some assurance that this country will not be dragged into a war as it was in the Crimean case. He admits the policy of the Government is intended to be that of non-intervention; but he fears that it may be possible to drift into a quarrel without intending it. But I suppose when the hon. member speaks of intervention he means either armed intervention or intervention of such a nature as, though not immediately, yet in ultimate result might lead to an appeal to physical force. If that is what he refers to, all I can say is that if the speech which Lord Derby about a week ago delivered in another place–if the opinions which I myself have invariably expressed on that subject, not merely when occupying the position I now hold, but for many years past when these questions were under discussion–if, what is infinitely more important, the unanimous feeling (for I believe it to amount to unanimity both of Parliament and the people out of doors)–the feeling that we ought not to be dragged into these Continental wars–if all these things, taken together, do not constitute a guarantee that ours will be a pacific policy, a policy of observation rather than of action–then I am unable to understand in what language a stronger guarantee can be given.
But if what is meant is intervention of a different character–intervention in the shape of friendly advice tendered by a neutral Power, then I think the question whether intervention of that kind is under particular circumstances desirable or not is a question which must necessarily be left to the discretion of the executive Government. I am not personally very fond of the system of giving advice to foreign countries. I entirely agree with what has been said by the right hon. gentleman opposite upon the subject, when he said that you are never more likely to lessen the influence of England than when you are constantly endeavouring to increase it by giving advice. I think that the right of giving advice has of late years been largely used; and that it has sometimes been not only used, but abused. Still, there is truth in the proverb which says that lookers-on see more of the game than the players; and cases do occur when warning given by a friendly and neutral Power–by a Power which is well known to have no interest of its own to serve, by a Power desiring nothing more than the restoration of peace, and that that peace shall be permanent–may do something to shorten the duration and limit the extent of a war that might otherwise spread over the greater part of Europe.
As to the state of affairs at the present moment–for that, I apprehend, is the practical question on which the House wishes an answer from me, I wish distinctly to assure hon. gentlemen and the country that the British Government stand, as regards the European controversy, free, unpledged, and uncommitted to any policy whatever. The sole diplomatic act which the present Government have taken–and it was almost the first act of any kind they had to perform–was that of supporting in general terms at Florence and Berlin the proposition made by the French Government for a temporary cessation of hostilities. It seemed to us that to support that proposition was on our part simply an act of humanity and common sense. The House will recollect what were the circumstances of the case. Venice had been ceded, not indeed to Italy, but ceded by Austria. A great battle had been fought, a decisive victory had been gained, Austria had invoked the mediation of France. France had accepted the post of mediator. She asked us to support, not the terms of peace–that would have been premature–but merely the general proposition for an armistice in order that the belligerent parties might have time to consider whether, under the totally altered state of circumstances, it would not be possible to substitute negotiations for further bloodshed, and to obtain the results of the war without continuing the war itself.
We did not feel it in our power to refuse our assent to that principle. But, while in general terms we have supported the proposition of an armistice, we have pledged ourselves to no terms or conditions of peace whatever. We have pledged ourselves to nothing beyond the general advice that an armistice should take place. The circumstances under which that advice was given have passed. Our mediation and our advice have not been officially asked by the combatants, and we have abstained from giving it. That is the present state of the matter.
The right hon. gentleman the member for Stroud [Mr. Horsman] has asked me whether there is any expectation of an armed mediation on the part of the French Government. Well, it is not my duty, nor is it in my power, to answer for other Governments, but only for our own. All I can say is, I have not the slightest reason to believe that any step of that kind is in contemplation, and I have strong reasons to believe that no such step is contemplated.
Mr. Horsman: I did not ask that question. It was another hon. member.
Then the question was asked by the hon. member for Wick [Mr. Laing]. Then these two questions were put to me–first, whether the British Government has been invited by that of France to address joint communications to all or any of the belligerent Powers? The French Government have taken up the matter, and it now rests with that Government. The French Government may or may not ask us to join in that work of mediation; but, should they do so, I do not think it would be the duty of the British Government to join in any such mediation, unless we have a distinct understanding as to the terms the French Government will propose.
The second question of the right hon. gentleman is, whether the British Government has expressed its readiness to concur with the Government of France in recommending Austria to terminate the war, by accepting the two conditions proposed by Prussia and Italy as to her surrender of Venetia, and ceasing to be a member of the German Confederation? Now, Sir, as to that, Venetia has been, I understand, ceded by Austria, and whether or not any questions will arise as to that settlement being absolute or conditional, I do not know; still I apprehend that none of us can entertain a doubt that the final result will be that Venetia must pass from Austria. Venetia has been, in effect, conquered not by Italy but for Italy; Venetia has been conquered in Germany. Whatever the manner of the transfer may be–whatever may be the precise nature of the measures adopted by France–I do not think any reasonable man can entertain a doubt that Venetia, at no distant period, will belong to Italy. Then, with regard to the question as to whether we have recommended Austria to terminate the war by assenting to the proposal of ceasing to be a member of the German Confederation, I must remind the right hon. gentleman that that proposal has never been made, so far as I am aware, as the sole condition of peace, that Austria should cease to be a member of the German Confederation. No doubt various preliminaries have been discussed between the two Governments.
If the question were narrowed to the issue whether Austria would conclude peace by ceding Venetia and by consenting to quit the Confederation, that, no doubt, would be a question upon which we should be in a position to give an opinion; but since we have no reason to think that the acceding to those two conditions by Austria would terminate the war, and since we do not know accurately and precisely what are the terms which would be likely to be accepted by one or other of the belligerent parties, it would be clearly premature on our part to express an opinion on the abstract question as to what conditions might or might not be accepted.
With regard to the general policy of the Government I have only one remark to make. I think there never was a great European war in which the direct national interests of England were less concerned. We all, I suppose, have our individual sympathies in the matter. The Italian question I look upon as not being very distant from a fair settlement; and with regard to the other possible results of the war, and especially as to the establishment of a strong North German Power–of a strong, compact empire, extending over North Germany–I cannot see that, if the war ends, as it very possibly may, in the establishment of such an empire–I cannot see that the existence of such a Power would be to us any injury, any menace, or any detriment. It might be conceivable enough that the growth of such a Power might indeed awaken the jealousy of other Continental States, who may fear a rival in such a Power. That is a natural feeling in their position. That position, however, is not ours, and if North Germany is to become a single great Power, I do not see that any English interest is in the least degree affected.
I think, Sir, I have now answered as explicitly as I can the various questions which have been put to me. I think, in the first place, I may assure the hon. member for Wick that there is no danger, as far as human foresight can go, of Continental complications involving this country in war. I think, in the next place, that if we do not intend to take an active part in the quarrel, we ought to be exceedingly cautious how we use menacing language or hold out illusory hopes. If our advice is solicited, and if there is any likelihood that that advice will be of practical use, I do not think we ought to hesitate to give the best advice in our power; but while giving it under a deep sense of moral responsibility, as being in our judgement the best, we ought carefully to avoid involving ourselves or the country in any responsibility for the results of following that advice in a matter where no English interest is concerned. I do not think we ought to put ourselves in such a position that any Power could say to us, ‘We have acted upon your advice, and we have suffered for it. You have brought us into this difficulty, and therefore you are bound to get us out of it.’ We ought not, I say, to place ourselves in a position of that kind. And now, Sir, I have stated all, I think, that it is possible for me to state at this time, and it remains for me only to assure the House–knowing, as I do, how utterly impossible it is for any member of the Executive to carry on his work effectively without the support of public opinion–it only remains for me to say that, as far as the nature of the case allows, I shall always be anxious that the House shall be conversant with everything that is done.