Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Abyssinian Debate

The vigorous debate which took place last night on the Abyssinian question ended, we think, on the whole, favourably for the Government. The greater part of the evening was spent in airing undisputed constitutional principles, and in discussing the question whether the facts of the case brought those principles into question. The charge of Mr. Lowe, and the defence of Lord Stanley and Sir Stafford Northcote, come in a very few words to this: "You went to war," says Mr. Lowe, "or at all events you made war practically inevitable without giving notice to the House of Commons of the state of affairs, and you used language which led them to believe that the question was still under consideration when in point of fact it was practically settled." To this Lord Stanley replies, "I did nothing of the sort. My language implied that the question was in suspense, and so it was. We carried on our preparations for war on the contingency that war might turn out to be necessary, and also possible, which contingency happened, and it was not till within a very few days of the recess, when practically it was too late to call Parliament together, that the war was actually, decided upon." This view of the case appears, on the whole, to have satisfied Mr. Gladstone, whose speech substantially asserts that, though the Government could not fairly be blamed for anything done down to the end of the session, they acted wrongly in not acquainting the House at the very close of the session with the facts which had come to their knowledge. Mr. Gladstone’s speech, as compared with that of Mr. Lowe, is like a summing up, suggesting the possibility of giving a plaintiff nominal damages in a case where his advocate has claimed £10,000. From Mr. Gladstone’s point of view the offence committed has really been so slight that it is hardly worth while to take notice of it If the Government had come down to the House at the end of August and had stated that King Theodore had finally refused to release the prisoners, that such provisional preparations had been made that an expedition might, if the House thought fit, be got under weigh in the course of the winter, and that the proper authorities having been consulted had come to the conclusion that the undertaking, though difficult, was perfectly practicable, can there be the faintest doubt as to the course which Parliament would have taken? Suppose that the statement made in the Queen's Speech on the 21st of August, that a peremptory demand had been made on Theodore, which would be backed in case of need by force, had been anticipated by a Ministerial statement a few days before, would it in practice have made the very smallest difference? No one can possibly suppose that, it would. On the other hand, does any one in these days seriously suppose that there is the least reason to fear that any Government would be able to engage in any war, or to carry it on for a single week in opposition to the wishes of Parliament and the public? It is idle even to discuss such a supposition. This being the state of the case, we own we regard the question of constitutional etiquette with much indifference. It is one of the great advantages of a settled state of things that people are not obliged to respect each other's legal rights as if every trifling invasion of them was to constitute a precedent which might bind important rights for all time to come. The sovereignty of the House of Commons, its practical appropriation of the functions, at least of the most important functions, of sovereignty, is so complete, that it need no more be nervous about the encroachments on its prerogative than a man of really strong character about his position as master in his own family. Of course the Abyssinian war, like all other wars, is entirely dependent on its assent and approval, and if the Ministry have taken a trifling, liberty (a question which it would perhaps be as well to refer to the shade of Hallam), they ought not only to be pardoned, but congratulated and praised if the event should prove that the course which they have taken has really saved a year in the prosecution of the war, and contributed to its energetic and successful management. If the military part of the expedition goes well, the constitutional grievance may' be very easily condoned and allowed to pass into oblivion.

What is most remarkable about the debate is, that it would scarcely have been possible had we been blessed with anything like government at the head of affairs. Lord Stanley had really to defend himself last night against the consequences of that "caution" which has been in operation long enough to wear down to cowardice. His speech gave the clearest evidence, once more, of the dread of responsibility and absence of any real sense of power which clogs nearly every act of every Government of our day. He was so terribly afraid of declaring for war till he had got not only a perfectly unanswerable reason for it, but a popular demand for action, that in all his relations with Parliament, down to the very last moment, he contrived to give the impression that he thought the difficulties of the expedition insuperable, and it was this that brought down on himself the denunciations of Mr. Lowe. Some of the expressions in his speech amount to an admission that he had carefully kept open the door of retreat till he was quite sure that a good strong breeze of popular opinion had sprung up to back him, both at home and in India. This hesitation, this feebleness, seems to us to deserve reprobation for its own sake; it is full of evil consequences. For instance, we should not be surprised if it should turn out to be the true explanation of the scale upon which the expedition has been planned, and of the waste with which it is being carried out. If the Government should have so managed affairs, as to throw upon Sir Robert Napier the whole responsibility of the expedition, it is not at all improbable that Sir Robert, in order to protect himself, may have required supplies of men and stores in excess of the exigencies of the case. Should this be the fact (as we believe it to be), we shall have to pay pretty dearly for the privilege of being governed by men who veil a feeble and obsequious deference to every wind of public feeling under the appearance of special candour and independence. There are here and there a few statesmen, like Sir Henry Bulwer, who understand the enormous mischiefs of this latter-day system of no-government, and who have the courage to protest against it; but Lord Stanley’s explanation only adds to our hopelessness in the matter.

With respect to the military branch of the subject the public would do well to imitate the discretion of Mr. Gladstone in reserving its opinion, and waiting to be enlightened by events. The Government certainly appears to have accumulated information, against the quantity of which nothing is to be said, though its quality has been considerably obscured by what is perhaps not an unintentional exuberance of unreadable print on the part of the compilers of the Blue-book. The proof of the pudding in all such cases lies exclusively in the eating. If our troops make a mere military promenade, release the prisoners, humiliate or chastise Theodore, collect a variety of curious information, and gratify Sir H. Verney’s curiosity as to the MSS. contained in the Abyssinian monasteries, all will be well. If, on the other hand, they meet with all the terrible calamities which fervid Frenchmen depicted for their edification, and which appear to have had some effect on Mr. Lowe’s imagination-if the whole army, advancing in single file along a path on which one false step would precipitate them to destruction, is arrested in its progress by a man falling down with sunstroke, or by a mule afflicted with the obstinacy peculiar to his people-- if there is no water which is not poisonous, if every fly is a sort of fiery serpent, and if King Theodore’s troops are accustomed to march sixty miles a day on two meals a week, sleeping at night, by preference in the mud, why then our troops are in a very bad way; but the British public will get no really authentic information upon the question whether either of these prospects, or any and what other, lies before them till the thing has actually happened. In a few months' time we shall know all about it, and during the interval we had better exercise what patience has been left to us by previous mismanagement.

One point appears to have been brought out by the debate with the most perfect clearness, and that is the absolute necessity of the expedition, supposing it not to be as physically impossible as we are told it would have been to march an army into Bokhara to rescue Stoddart and Connolly or to revenge their murder. No one can follow either Mr. Disraeli’s or Lord Stanley’s account of the different transactions which have taken place without arriving at the conclusion that there were only three things to choose between. We must have put up with the insults of Theodore, or have paid him a large bribe by way of ransom, or have fought with him. As to bribing him, it is obvious that such a course would amount to nothing less than offering a reward to savage tribes for insulting English subjects, or to adopt Lord Stanley’s expression, we should have had to pay first and fight afterwards.  As to submitting to his insults, of course, the insult in itself is not worth thinking about. It is hardly conceivable that there should be any human creature in the four seas who regards with any other feeling than that of profound indifference the sentiments which Theodore may feel as to the character and position of the English nation.  But, notwithstanding Mr. Osborne’s views of the matter, the reputation of this country is a most important and substantial thing, and its maintenance is, in particular, as Mr. Layard not only alleged but proved, absolutely essential to the safety of the Indian empire and of the lives and property of our fellow-countrymen who govern it.  We have established in those countries a character for resolution and power which must not be allowed to decline, and which so long as it exists is a greater check upon those who might be inclined to take liberties than almost any amount of military force.  To prove by a signal example that we, the English nation, are perfectly ready and willing to pay several millions of money and to send an army of 10,000 men hundreds of miles into a barbarous country in order to liberate or at least to revenge a few obscure British subjects and a subordinate diplomatic agent is an undertaking which, well carried out, must bear good fruit in a variety of ways.  It will form a most useful precedent, not only for people like King Theodore, but for much more important personages.  Would the Indian mutiny have ever happened if the sepoys had not in one way and another got it into their heads that they had a great opportunity?  A stroke in time is very often good economy, and it is perfectly obvious that King Theodore has qualified himself particularly well for the distinction of being converted into a precedent.  And there is, above all, the obligation to protect the servants of the country from injury or indignity abroad, however foolish may have been the Minister who sent them there, or however he may labour to throw upon them the blame of their misfortunes, as Mr. Layard most audaciously did last night.

Pall Mall Gazette, November 27, 1867.

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