Front Page Titles (by Subject) XIII: DANGER OF WAR WITH RUSSIA - Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions
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XIII: DANGER OF WAR WITH RUSSIA - John Bright, Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions 
Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions, introduction by Joseph Sturge (London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1907).
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DANGER OF WAR WITH RUSSIA
Birmingham, January 13, 1878.
[The annual meeting of the members of the Borough of Birmingham was held this year at a somewhat earlier date than usual, in consequence of the fact that the session of Parliament began at an unusually early period. Mr. Bright took occasion to dwell on the menacing appearance of affairs in Eastern Europe, and to contrast the popular sentiment which led to the Crimean war with the general determination of the English people to take no part in the existing complications.]
THIS meeting, as you know, has been called some days earlier than was some time ago intended, and you know, also, that Parliament has been summoned about three weeks before the usual time. It is because Parliament has been summoned so early that this meeting has been called so early. In ordinary times the summoning of Parliament creates a considerable interest in the country, but, on the whole, I think it is an interest rather of a pleasurable kind. On this occasion the announcement that Parliament was to meet on the 17th of January had the effect of creating great anxiety; in some cases I have heard it described as consternation, and in all the centres of trade it has caused a certain depression which has been sensibly felt. I am driven to the conclusion, at which I think a large portion of the people have arrived, that the cause of all this is not a fear of Parliament, but a want of confidence in the Administration. We have been passing through something like a crisis, and we have had no decisive voice from the Government. In point of fact, if one body of men has said that the Government has spoken in a particular way, the next body of men that you meet would tell you that the Government intended something entirely different. Of one thing, however, we may be quite sure, that the question which fills the mind of the people at this hour, and which has filled it for a long time back, is the great and solemn question of peace or war—and I doubt whether it would be possible to submit to any people a greater question than that.
There are many in this hall who remember a period, about twenty-three years ago, when the same question was submitted to the nation which the nation at this moment is considering, and that is, whether peace or war is the true policy and the true interest of this people. At that time the conclusion to which the people came was a conclusion in favour of war. They followed a Government that, unwisely as I thought then, and as most people think now, threw them into war. I think we may take some lesson from that war. I read a short time ago in a very influential newspaper—a newspaper which had supported the war of 1854—that it was a pity to go back at all to that question, that circumstances had entirely changed, and that men who were in favour of that war might very justly and properly be against a repetition of it. Now, for my share, I believe the arguments at the present moment for war are as strong as they were in 1854—and in point of fact, as I believe the war then had no just argument in its support, so I think that now there is no sound argument that can be brought forward to induce this people to countenance any entrance into the existing conflict. As to not going back to the past, what is common with individuals? Nothing is more common and nothing more wise than to look back. One of our poets has said:
And how does a man become wiser as he grows older but by looking back upon the past, and by learning from the mistakes that he has made in his earlier years? And that which is true of an individual must surely also be true of a nation with regard to its foreign policy.
At that time the public mind was filled with falsehoods, and it was in a state which we might describe by saying that it became almost drunk with passion. With regard to Russia, you recollect, many of you, what was said of her power, of her designs, of the despotism which ruled in Russia, of the danger which hung over all the freedom of all the countries of Europe. And the error was not confined to a particular class. It spread from the cottage to all classes above, and it did not even spare those who were within the precincts of the throne. It was not adopted by the clergy of the Church of England only, but by the ministers of the Nonconformist bodies also. The poison had spread everywhere. The delusion was all-pervading. The mischief seemed universal, and, as I know to my cost, it was scarcely worth while to utter an argument or to bring forth a fact agaiust it. Well, we had a war for two years, and we know what was its result; at least we know something of it. We know that the naval arsenal at Sebastopol was to a large extent destroyed—that the Russian fleet was sunk in the harbour of Sebastopol. We know that when the treaty of peace came to be negotiated in 1856 Russia was forced to consent to a limitation of her fleet in the Black Sea, in order that she might never in future have a fleet that could menace the security of Turkey. Now, there was a certain cost that was necessarily paid for these things. Some people consider that the cost, when they are going into a war or when they are in it, is not of much consequence. I take a different view. I think the loss of 40,000 men in the prime of life, in their full powers—40,000 men killed in battle, dying from wounds, dying from horrible maladies in horrible hospitals—I think that is something, and I think the payment of 100,000,000l. sterling—and that war cost us far more—is a serious thing for a country where there are so many poor people and so many families who live only to-day on the produce of the labour of yesterday. But then the loss we suffered was a very small loss compared to the whole loss. I saw the other day a note in a work to which I will refer by and by, which said that 90,000 Russians were buried on the north side of the city of Sebastopol during that siege, and it was stated in the House of Lords—I think by Lord Lansdowne during the War—that up to the time of the death of the Emperor of Russia—the Emperor Nicholas—240,000 Russians had died or been killed, and it is stated upon good authority that the whole loss in men to the Russians during that two years’ war was not less than 500,000. So that by adding our loss, and the French loss, and the Turkish loss, and the Sardinian loss, Mr. Kinglake reckons that the whole cost of the two years of that war was little if any less than 1,000,000 human lives.
Now, it cannot be wrong, and it cannot be unwise, that we should look back and see what that war cost and what it gained. The result of it was that Russia, for the time and in that particular part of her empire in the Crimea, was vanquished, and a treaty of peace was agreed to at Paris in the year 1856. Now I want to show you just for a moment how mistaken were some of the opinions that were expressed at the time. I will only give you two little extracts. In February of 1854 the Times newspaper, which may be taken to be a wide representation, a fair representation, of a vast amount of opinion in this country, said:
“To destroy Sebastopol is nothing less than to demolish the entire fabric of Russian ambition in those very regions where it is most dangerous to Europe. This feat, and this only, would have really promoted the solid and durable objects of the war.”
Now, Sebastopol was destroyed, and the Russian fleet then existing was sunk by the Russians to bar the entrance to the harbour of Sebastopol, and Russia was limited for the future so that she should never have a fleet that could be a menace or be any danger to Turkey. Well, the Times was not the only authority which made a statement of this kind. There is a work, published lately, to which I will for a moment refer—that is, the third volume of the “Life of the Prince Consort.” It is a book which I have read with intense interest, many parts of it with a painful interest. It is a book which gives you an exalted and, I believe, a true picture of the greatness and the nobleness of the character of the late Prince Consort. It is a book to which no doubt her Majesty the Queen has contributed the main portion of the facts and of the contents. In this work she has built up a monument which probably will last as long as our language of the greatness and the nobleness of the Prince. I doubt not it will last longer than any of those monuments of bronze or marble by which it has been sought to commemorate his name and his character.
Well, in this book there are things, I have said, of painful interest. I have seen some criticisms upon it which go the length of saying that they think the book had better not have been published now, as it is calculated to excite unfriendly feelings to Russia. I have learned rather a different lesson from it. I think it is impossible for anybody of intelligent and impartial judgment to read the book through without coming to the conclusion that the occurrence of that war was an enormous error on the part of our statesmen, and that we are bound now by all regard for our country utterly to condemn it. I will give you just one paragraph from one of the Prince’s letters, or, rather, from a memorandum that was submitted to the Government, I think in 1854. He was referring to certain expectations held out to the House of Commons by Lord John Russell as to what the war should result in, and he says:
“I find that the impossibility of allowing Russia to retain her threatening armaments in the Crimea was one of the most prominent of these expectations and the one which gave most satisfaction to the House. Now that vast treasure and the best English blood have been profusely expended towards obtaining that object, the nation has a right to expect that any peace contemplated by the Government should fully and completely realize it.”
He admits afterwards during the negotiations that the peace was not such a peace as they would have wished to have had, but it was a peace which was much better than continuing the war with the complications there were then in Europe. But what happened when you had destroyed Sebastopol, and when the fleet was sunk, and when you had limited their fleet in the future by the Treaty of Pairs? If you will step over to the year 1871 you will find that the main article of the treaty—the limitation of the Russian fleet in Black Sea, the article to which the Russians were, I suppose, more opposed than to any other, because they considered it was more humiliating—that article was surrendered by our Government and by other Governments of Europe—I will not say actually without remonstrance, though I think I might almost say so, but without any strong remonstrance, and without anything like a blow; so that everything has failed. You destroyed a large number of lives, you spent the money, and you disturbed the peace of Europe, and the end of it was that nothing whatsoever was gained, because fifteen years afterwards everything was relinquished, or nearly everything, for which war had been waged. The Russian fleet is no longer limited in the Black Sea. Turkey, for which you made war, is not only not safe, but is in much greater danger than she ever was before; and it is obvious, from what we have seen, that, in comparison with Turkey, Russia is just as powerful as if the war of 1854 had never taken place, and at that time we had, as you recollect, a great ally in the Emperor of the French.
Now, I should like to tell you what sort of an ally he was; fortunately we have not one of that kind now. France never was in favour of the war. The Emperor went into the war, not because he cared about Turkey or cared about Russia, but because he wanted to associate himself with respectable old monarchical institutions—with a respectable old monarchically governed country. He thought that some things that had taken place in his career might be forgotten, and that he would come out able to enter the very high society of the sovereigns of Europe. Now, what the Prince says about this is as follows: writing to his uncle Leopold, the late King of the Belgians, in December, 1855, he says, “I really believe there is not a single soul in France who ever gave himself the smallest concern about the maintenance of the Turkish empire.” And he says further, in the year 1856, in February, “We know that England is hated all over the Continent, that even in France it is the Emperor, and the Emperor alone, who is with us body and soul;” and he added, “Our position in the Conference“—the Conference preceding the treaty of peace—“will be one of extreme difficulty, for, except the Emperor Napoleon, we have no one on our side.” Therefore, whilst we were fighting the despotism of the Emperor Nicholas, we had as our principal ally the despotism of the Emperor Napoleon, and we had none of the sympathy of that great nation the French. More than 40,000 Frenchmen laid down their lives in the Crimea in alliance with us for a cause in which they had no interest, and in which their country had no sympathy.
At that time Europe was not with us, and, as you know, Europe is not with us now. In 1855, in May, the Prince says this: “The Crimea was chosen by France and England, forsaken by the rest of Europe, as the only vulnerable point of attack,” and he says further, in 1854, “If there were a Germany, and a German sovereign in Berlin, it [that is, the calamity of this war] would never happened.” There is now a Germany, and there is a German Emperor in Berlin, yet the war has not been prevented. You will see, therefore, from this slight sketch that there is nothing but failure, nothing but disappointment in this page of the history of our country; and I want to ask you tonight, and to ask all those of my countrymen who may condescend to read what I am saying, I want to ask them whether they are willing to write such another page in our history—what shall I say?—shockingly terrible and bloody, and as utterly fruitless? Forsaken by Europe! We are forsaken by Europe now. Germany is not with us, Austria is not with us, Italy is not with us, France is not with us—we are alone. We only are constantly meddling, constantly doing or saying something which is supposed to be pleasant to the Turk, and which it is hoped, some people say—which it is often hoped—may be unpleasant to the Emperor of Russia.
Now I must ask you to consider for a moment why it is that we are in this position, so different from the position of the other nations of Europe. What interest have we at the east end of he Mediterranean which the other nations of Europe have not? We have only one point of interest, and they have it too, only we have it in a greater degree, and that is in the constant free maintenance of the passage through the Suez Canal. We have a vast dependency in India, and, therefore, in regard to military passage, and also in regard to trade—we, I suppose, furnish nearly three-fourths of all the shipping which passes through the canal—we have a greater interest in the canal being kept open than any other country in Europe has. That, of course, I admit. What a strange history has that canal. It is enough to teach us that we ought to examine carefully the declarations of great statesmen and Prime Ministers before we adopt a policy which they recommend to us. I recollect hearing Lord Palmerston denounce that canal. He condemned it as a thing not only of no advantage, but rather to be disliked by England; and he did not believe, if it was ever made, that it could be kept open. And he quoted, I think, the opinion of a distinguished railway engineer with a view to strengthen his argument. The consequence was that the canal was made almost entirely by French money, through the energy of M. Lesseps, who is a very eminent Frenchman, and I am not sure whether a single share in that company was held originally, or has been held from the beginning, by any native of this country.
I maintain that all Europe is interested in the canal, and all Europe would protest against any power, be it the Khedive of Egypt or the Sultan of Turkey, or perhaps what is most unlikely of all, the Czar of Russia, that took any steps to prevent the free passage through the canal, or even dreamed of doing so. As a proof of it, it is, I believe, well known that all the Powers of Europe would be willing to combine with us and with the French company and with France for the purpose of declaring this canal not only a great national or European but a great world’s work, and that under no conceivable circumstances shall any Power, or combination of Powers, be permitted to interfere with it. M. Lesseps, the French promoter of the canal, has over and over again made suggestions of this kind. They have been made to our Government, and I think it is a great misfortune, and have always thought so, that that plan was not adopted, and that the canal was not put in a condition of safety. I think it is in a condition of safety now; but I mean in a condition of safety so clear and distinct and unquestionable that nobody could make use of it for the political objects for which it has been made use of lately. Now, why is it we cannot do this, why is it that at this moment, when talking about the canal in connection with Russia, that Mr. Cross in the House of Commons, among the interests he specified as those which England must maintain, mentioned this interest of the canal? I have heard a very eminent person on his side of the House say, and acknowledge to me, “As for the canal, I think that of the two the canal is in rather more danger from Turkey than it is from Russia.” All this arises from an ignorance and, in some quarters, an ignorant jealousy of Russia. That ignorant jealousy has existed in this country for forty years past.
I was reading the other day a book of singular interest to me, the memoirs and correspondence of the late Senator Charles Sumner, a Senator of Massachusetts, in the United States. Charles Sumner was a personal friend of mine, and he corresponded with me for many years. In looking over his memoirs I came upon what I thought was a remarkable passage, which you will permit me to read to you. It is written in one of his letters from England in 1839. It was just previous to that time that there had been so much excitement in this country about Russia, and some people had really so nearly approached to a condition fit for Bedlam that they believed that the Russians were likely to come through the Baltic and to invade the east coast of England, and they persuaded the Government of that day—always too ready to be persuaded on things of this kind—to add 5,000 men to the navy in order that the panic might be put an end to. It is like putting a plaster upon a sore. When people get into a panic of this kind they vote two millions or five millions of money, five thousand men to the navy, or five thousand men to the army, and then go to their beds and sleep soundly. All there is in it is that next morning they have the tax-gatherer, and they pay. At that time there was living in England a very eminent man, the late Lord Durham. He was a member of the Reform Cabinet; he was one of the members of the committee of that Cabinet who drew up the first Reform Bill. He was a man of very Liberal views; he wished the Cabinet of Lord Grey not to give us a 10l. franchise, but household franchise, and to accompany it with the ballot. I will tell you what sort of man he was. He had been Ambassador at the Court of the Czar, at St. Petersburg, and Mr. Sumner says this of him,—“I ventured to ask him what there was in the present reports with regard to the hostile intentions of Russia towards England.” “Not a word of truth,” he said, “I will give you leave to call me idiot if there is a word of truth.” He said that Russia was full of friendly regard for England, and he pronounced the late Mr. Urquhart, who died during the last autumn, somewhere in the South of France, who was then going about the kingdom preaching against Russia, a madman. Well, I have known Mr. Urquhart in the House of Commons. I would not like to say a word against him now that he is not here to answer for himself, but this I may say without wrong, that he was a man so possessed of certain notions that it was scarcely possible to believe him in a condition for fairly reasoning upon them. He believed that the Czar Nicholas managed the whole world by his diplomacy; he believed Lord Palmerston was bribed by the Russian Government to sell the liberties of Europe and the interests of this country to Russia; he believed—and I have heard him say it in the most positive manner—that the war in the Crimea was waged, not to save Turkey, but to place Turkey in the hands of Russia, and that if we would leave Turkey alone, and leave her to fight Russia alone, Turkey was perfectly safe, and Russia would be easily and finally vanquished. These were the views of Mr. Urquhart, which I believe he held honestly, for he devoted years of his life to preaching them, and Lord Durham said that Mr. Urquhart, in preaching them, was acting like a madman, and was utterly ignorant of the true state of things in Russia.
No nation, I believe, has been in disposition more friendly to this nation than Russia. There is no nation of the Continent of Europe that is less able to do harm to England, and there is no nation on the Continent of Europe to whom we are less able to do harm than we are to Russia. We are so separated that it seems impossible that the two nations, by the use of reason or common sense at all, could possibly be brought into conflict with each other. We have India, and men tell you that India is in jeopardy from Russia. I recollect a speech made last session by Mr. Laing, who has been out to India as Financial Minister, that was conclusive upon that point. But there is one thing that Russia can do in India, and that may be troublesome to us in another way, not in the way of war or of conquest, but in the way of certain irritation and trouble. You persuade the people of India by the writings of the press and the speeches of public men in this country, that we run great hazard from the advance of Russia, and if you have enemies in India of course you feed their enmity by this language, and you make them, if they wish to escape from the government of England, turn naturally and inevitably to Russia as the Power that can help them. The interest of this country with regard to Russia in connection with India is an unbroken amity, and I am sure that that unbroken amity might be secured if we could get rid of the miserable jealousy that afflicts us.
I thought some time ago that we are approaching, and I trust still we are approaching, a better time. The present Emperor of Russia is not the one with whom we made the war. He is a man not given to military display. He is a man whose reign before this war was signalized chiefly by the grand act of the liberation of twenty millions of his people. He at least was willing to forget the unfortunate past. He consented that his only daughter, the loved child of his heart, should marry the son of the English Queen. And I thought that this was a great sign of a permanent reconciliation, and a very blessed promise of a prolonged peace; and although that has not borne in this political respect all the fruit one could have wished for still I am delighted to believe that there is a great change growing, and a change for the better, and a change which I believe will be accelerated by what will take place when this unfortunate war comes to an end.
There are still the traditions of the Foreign Office. I once expressed—I was very irreverent towards such an ancient institution—the wish that the Foreign Office might some day be burned down; and at least, correcting myself, that if it should be burned down, that I hoped all its mad, and baneful, and wicked traditions would be burned with it. But these traditions still linger in the Foreign Office, and Lord Derby—to whom they are foreign—endeavouring to fill that eminent office, I believe with a true intention to serve his country, and to do right—has been made the victim of the traditions he finds in the office which he has filled for the last four of five years. But I say the heart of the nation is gradually changing. I met at dinner at a friend’s house in Salford only the night before last an old friend of mine, and he came up to me and said, “Do you recollect me twenty-three or twenty-four years ago? You know I walked down Market Street with you that day when you came out of the Town Hall, where you had been hissed and hooted and maltreated, and where you were not allowed to speak to the constituents you were endeavouring to serve, and when you were not allowed to pass down the street without gross insult?” Well, now, a man may have an opinion in favour of peace, and the “dogs of war” will scarcely bark at him.
But still we cannot disguise from ourselves the fact that there is something of a war party in this country, and that it has free access to some, and indeed to not a few, of the newspapers of the London press. If there is any man here who thinks the question of our policy doubtful, if there is any man in the country who shall read what I say now who is in doubt, I ask him to look back to the policy of twenty-three years ago, and to see how it was then tried, and how it succeeded, or how it failed. The arguments were the same then exactly as they are now. The falsehoods were the same. The screechings and howlings of a portion of the press were just about the same. But the nation now—and if nations learned nothing, how long could they be sustained?—has learned something, and it has risen above this. I am persuaded that there is a great difference of opinion as to Russian policy in the main, or Turkish policy in this war, and men may pity especially the suffering on the one side or the suffering on the other—for my share, I pity the sufferings of both sides,—and whatever may be our differences of opinion, I think it is conclusively proved that the vast bulk of all the opinion that is influential in this country upon this question leads to this—that the nation is for a strict and rigid neutrality throughout this war.
It is a painful and terrible thing to think how easy it is to stir up a nation to war. Take up any decent history of this country from the time of William III until now—for two centuries, or nearly so—and you will find that wars are always supported by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should not have listened to. It is just so now, for unfortunately there still remains the disposition to be excited on these questions. Some poet, I forget which it is, has said:
“Some cunning phrase by faction caught and spread” like the cunning phrase of “The balance of power,” which has been described as the ghastly phantom which the Government of this country has been pursuing for two centuries and has never yet overtaken. “Some cunning phrase” like that we have now of “British interests.” Lord Derby has said the wisest thing that has been uttered by any member of this Administration during the discussions on this war when he said that the greatest of British interests is peace. And a hundred, far more than a hundred; public meetings have lately said the same; and millions of households of men and women have thought the same. To-night we shall say “Amen” to this wise declaration. I am delighted to see this grand meeting in this noble hall. This building is consecrated to peace and to freedom. You are here in your thousands, representing the countless multitudes outside. May we not to-night join our voices in this resolution, that, so far as we are concerned, the sanguinary record of the history of our country shall be closed—that we will open a new page, on which shall henceforth be inscribed only the blessed message of mercy and of peace?