2 MAY 1891, Page 9

THELORDS' DEBATE ON NEWFOUNDLAND. T HE very grave and lengthy debate

raised in the House of Lords on Monday on the Newfoundland Bill, has surprised not a few even of those politicians who are in- terested in Colonial affairs. The subject seemed hardly worthy of such an elaborate discussion, being apparently nothing but a question whether it was worth while to pass an Imperial Act granting to naval officers certain powers in Newfoundland, when the Legislature of the island was ready to pass a similar Bill for itself. In reality, however, the debate was on a topic of the most serious importance, and one which is perpetually coming up,—namely, the ex- tent to which, when a foreign treaty affects the rights or interests of one of the free Colonies, the Imperial Govern- ment should forego its independent treaty-making power. The delicacy, and, indeed, smallness of the immediate question at issue, only makes the importance of the prin- ciple ultimately involved more conspicuous. The Govern- ment having agreed with the Government of France to an arbitration intended to define their respective rights as to the lobster-fishing, agreed also to a modus vivendi until the arbitrators had given their award. To enforce this modus vivendi, it is necessary that some authority should have power to prevent the fishermen on the coast of Newfoundland from breaking it ; and as the Newfoundland Supreme Court held that this power did not belong to the naval officers, and as the local Legis- lature would not grant them the power required, the Secretary for the Colonies introduced a Bill reviving some old rights which the officers had formerly possessed. The Colonists were furious, and in the fashion of Colonies and public meetings, swore at her Majesty's Government in resolutions, but being at bottom sensible people, sent over their Premier, Sir William Whiteway, to represent their case. He was heard at the Bar of the Lords, and proved unexpectedly moderate, offering, if the Government would withdraw their Bill and allow the substitution of Civil Court orders for naval orders, to pass a local Act securing for one year that the modus vivendi should be enforced. The Government, as we understand, are willing to agree, but still pressed the second reading of their Bill as necessary to meet the possible cases either of the Colony refusing to be bound by Sir William White- way's promises, or of such a delay intervening that the lobster-fishery would begin for the year, and the French would accuse us, justly enough, of breach of faith. They had no wish to pass their Bill to the annoyance of Colonists, but they held that they must be ready, if the Colonial Act were not passed by Whitsuntide, to pass one of their own.

Now, were her Majesty's Ministers wrong or right ? The Glad.stonian Peers hold that they were wrong, because the Colony had held out an olive-branch which should have been accepted in a cordial spirit, an argument which is, in truth, nothing but the argument from the force of love, which that party is for the moment applying as fully and in as many directions as if it really believed that the whole world had become sincerely Christian, and that coercive law upon any point was only an anachronism. That is a fine faith, but it is unhappily not one in accordance with the facts of the world around us, and especially not with that other law which binds us to keep contracts even to our own hurt. No one wants to injure or coerce or insult the Colonists ; but they are neither insulted nor coerced. nor injured by our making ready, in case they should not pass the promised Bill in good time, to ensure by Imperial legislation the keeping of the Imperial contract with France. If they pass their Bill, the Imperial Bill will drop. If they do not pass it, then the Imperial Legislature will do for them what their representative confesses explicitly by his promise that they ought to do for themselves. We can see no just ground for offence of any kind, any more than there would be in a man who was surety for a debt arranging his bank- account so as to meet it if the debtor himself did not. It is a reasonable business precaution, and nothing more, neces- sary in order to prove to the French, who are just now in an irritable and suspicious mood, that in any case the bargain made with them will be kept. We cannot see why the Gladstonian Peers, who fully admit that the bargain must be kept, are even critical. They have no more right than power to foreknow what the Legislature of Newfoundland, which is an independent and self-assertive body, will do or not do ; and are objecting in fact, though not, we admit fully, in intention, to the country getting ready to keep faith. What does the second reading matter, if everything is straight in Newfoundland It matters this much, say the Colonists in effect, but very plainly, 'that you are legislating over our heads. If we pass the Bill, we keep our independence, in theory at all events, and. must be held to have sanctioned your treaties ; but if you pass the same Bill, then we are legis- lated for and made treaties for without our own consent. In making treaties which affect us, you ought not only to consult us, but to be bound by our consent or refusal to consent. We ought, in fact, so far as our own limits are concerned, to be co-ordinate with you in diplomatic arrange- ments. The smaller the actual difference for which we contend, the greater is the principle behind it, which is our right to share in the treaty-making power.' There we arrive at last at the kernel of the Newfoundland grievance, and. it is one on which we cannot conceive any statesman, however radical in temperament, entertaining a moment's doubt. It is the claim of a Colony to imperial power, and it cannot be allowed, even if the consequence of refusal be the loss of that Colony. It would be better to lose it than to legislate so that the Imperial Government could not, even in extremity, legally make a treaty binding on the whole Empire. If we cannot make an arrangement with France to argue before arbitrators about the respective rights of the two countries to certain lobsters, clearly we cannot make an arrangement about more important things, and the right of making treaties practically disappears. We could not pass even a treaty granting protection to French subjects, without the consent of every Colony in which a Frenchman might express a desire to settle. That is not a claim which even an American State can make against the Federation ; it is a claim to independence in foreign affairs, and is inadmissible, not for any reason of dignity or pride, but because it would produce anarchy in practice. There would be no authority within the Empire capable of making or of observing an inter- national agreement. We should be in the position which constitutional lawyers assign to the United. States when treaties and State laws conflict, but without the pos- session of the geographical position which guards the Union from any ill consequences of its rudimentary nationality. That when a treaty galls, or a new agreement has to be made, a Colony affected should be consulted, is not only matter of courtesy, but of the simplest expediency, an expediency recognised. whenever our treaties affect the wine trade or the trade in Bradford goods. No Foreign Secretary in his senses would arrange for a foreign duty on mixed woollen and cotton fabrics without asking Brad- ford manufacturers their opinion as to its effect on them ; but no Foreign Secretary would feel bound by their assent or dissent. He has to think of the whole country, and so also he has when a Colony is concerned. Either Lord Salisbury must be able to keep his agreement with M. Ribot, whether Sir W. Whitewa,y permits him or not, or be has no power of making agreements at all. If the Colony says, Well, we recognise that, but still, you may as friends try to spare our susceptibilities,' we fully agree ; but then, that is precisely what the Imperial Government is doing. It is breaking all the rules of logic, and most of the rules of Parliamentary practice, in order to give the Colonists the pleasure of appearing to be co- sharers in the treaty-making power,—and what more can it do ? Lord Dunraven, indeed, says it can do more by withdrawing its Bill, and then, if Newfoundland re- fuses to endorse Sir W. Whiteway's promises, rushing an Act through Parliament; but surely he must be living in a balloon. Rush a Colonial Act through the House of Commons, with the Irish Members sitting there, and Mr. Labouchere and Mr. Cobb, and perhaps a hundred Members more, each one eager to make himself felt ! No modern Ministry will place itself in any position of the kind, and Lord Knutsford, in passing his Bill through the Lords and leaving the Commons time to talk about it, is but obeying the dictates of the commonest prudence, and means no offence whatever to the people of Newfoundland, whose sensitiveness, if they will permit a friend to say so, is a little like that of the Scotch widow who accepted her middle-aged suitor on business grounds, and then put in as a stipulation essential to self-respect: "But I maun hae my due o' coortin'." If Newfoundland desires to be dignified, it will hold that so important a Colony is not bound to take note of inchoate Bills in a distant Legisla- ture, and may easily, if it passes its Act, affirm that the British Parliament had used no compulsion, "which, indeed, had even been talked of only in the effete House of Lords."