TOPICS OF THE DAY • RUSSIA AND THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT.
TORD SALISBURY'S reply to the Duke of Marlborough on Tuesday should be perfectly satisfactory to men of both parties. If he acts fully up to the spirit of that reply, we, at least, shall do full justice to the good faith with which the Tory Government has accepted and worked out the policy of its predecessor. We are the more bound to say this, because we have more than once remarked on Lord Salisbury's evident hankering after the occupation of Candahar,—on the deep regret which he has expressed that Candahar is no longer in the hands of Great Britain. His speech on Tuesday, how- ever, appears to show that he has entirely given up the notion of retracing his steps in that matter, that he will not allow British troops to enter Afghanistan except at the direct invitation of the Ameer, and that he is adopting, ex anima, the policy sketched out in the debate initiated by the Duke of Argyll, and heartily supported from both sides of the House,—the policy, namely, of strengthening our own military frontier so as to make it practically invulnerable, and so as to render us independent of the Ameer of Afghanistan if at any time a ruler should arise there who did not prove to be amenable to our advice or anxious for our co-operation. That is, we are persuaded, the true policy ; and it is a satisfac- tion to us to see that Lord Salisbury has accepted frankly as an accomplished fact, however much he may bewail, that wise withdrawal from Afghanistan on which his predecessors determined and which they so firmly carried out.
The anxiety which remains is due to the evident reluctance of Russia to fulfil the agreement concerning the new boundary of Afghanistan concluded with the Liberal Govern- ment. Lord Salisbury says plainly that the negotiation is no further advanced than it was at the time he accepted office, and that Russia professes to be desirous of obtaining further information about the Zulfikar Pass before she proceeds with the negotiation. Now, as we are informed that M. de Giers has gone away for a two months' holiday, it seems likely that what Russia wants is simply delay, before taking any farther step in the matter. This wish for delay may have two quite different interpretations. It may mean that she wishes for time to make the fullest military preparations before deciding on an ultimatum ; or it may mean that she wants to see which English party will be in office after the General Election, before determining what that ultimatum shall be. If it means the first, it Undoubtedly shows that Russia con- templates war with Afghanistan as probable,—a war in which we must, by our pledges to the Ameer, be ourselves implicated, unless the Ameer breaks loose from our guidance and shakes himself free from our affiance. We cannot see that with this possibility before us anything is open to us but to press on the fortification of our own frontier, as well as any work which the Afghans will allow us to undertake for them by way of fortify- ing their undisputed territory against attack. We have given the Ameer a promise which neither party can retract, and, indeed, on which no one has insisted with more solemn emphasis than Mr. Gladstone. And Lord Salisbury would probably be the last statesman to attempt to disavow it. Therefore, if the new delays indicate that Russia is preparing for war, or if there be only plausible reason to believe that it is so, no one will blame Lord Salisbury if he urges on the Indian Government to be perfectly ready for such an issue, and does all in his power at the Foreign Office to prepare for it himself. And so far as these preparations go, we cordially approve the active prepara- tions which Lord Dafferin is still making in India, as Lord Randolph Churchill's Budget speech of Thursday night suffi- ciently indicates. When, however, that waspish politician virulently attacks Lord Ripon for his abandonment of the Quetta railway and his expenditure on public works, he only turns a strong case into an exceedingly weak one. As Lord Hartington said in reply, the abandonment of the Quetta railway at the time it was abandoned, was rendered absolutely necessary by the suspicions which Lord Salisbury's and Lord Lytton's insane Afghan policy had inspired. It was neces- sary to show that our evacuation of Candahar was a reality and not a feint, that we intended never to enter Afghanistan again except on the invitation of its native ruler ; and to prove this, it was essential that all the preparations of the Tory Government for an Afghan in- vasion should be discontinued. Now the case is very different. The Ameer of Afghanistan, though most anxious that we should not support him by entering that country until the emergency is most pressing, is himself desirous that whenever, or if ever, it becomes pressing, we should be able to respond promptly to his invitation. And, therefore, from the moment of the conclusion of the alliance, preparations became desirable and useful which were before dangerous and mischievous. We approve as heartily what Lord Dufferin is doing as we dis- approve what Lord Randolph Churchill is saying. It seems to us that that politician cannot deal even with finance without virulence. His only faculty is his sting, and as he does not like to make an appearance of any kind without using his only faculty, he manages to sting even through the perplexing accounts of the Indian Government. Fortu- nately, however, his sting, like the wasp's, is not very serious.. It takes a working bee to sting with effect.
But the other explanation of Russia's delays may be the true one. It may be that she wishes to have before her the result of the British General Election before she takes any action. That could only mean that she regards the Liberal Government as not unlikely to pursue a somewhat different policy in resisting her advances from that preferred by the Tories, and wishes to see what line of direction the English policy is most likely to take before she shows her hand. We will not say that the two lines of policy must necessarily concur, except in one thing,—the cordial backing up of Afghanistan in all her reasonable claims, and her claim to the Zulfikar Pass in particular. On that head Russia will certainly find Mr. Gladstone as fixed in purpose as the firmest Tory Minister could possibly be. It is not that it is impera- tively necessary to English interests that Afghanistan should be inviolate. That is very disputable. But it is im- peratively necessary to English interests that English pledges should be kept, and in this case a pledge was freely given which must be regarded as inviolable alike by the Government that gave and the Government which inherits it. It is possible, indeed, that the next Liberal Ministry may take a very different view of the true policy of England towards Russia on other questions,—that the policy sketched out by the English diplomatist, whose paper of 1875 was recently published in the Times and noticed in this journal, might be more or less adopted by a Liberal Government instead of the traditional, and, we think, the obsolete, policy favoured by Lord Salisbury, and indicated in the mission of Sir Henry Drummond Wolff to Constantinople,—the policy of supporting Turkey against Russia. But however that may be, there will be no more hope,—indeed, there will be less hope,—of getting a Government headed by Mr. Gladstone to. acquiesce in Russia's violation of the territory of our "protected ally," than there would be of obtaining the same concession from Lord Salisbury. We hold, therefore, that if Russia is deliberately delaying a settlement from any hankering after the Zulfikar Pass, she will be more disappointed by the actual consequences of the elections if a Liberal Government returns to office than she will be by a Tory triumph. So far as we can see, she would do well to settle with her adversary while she is in the way with him, for if she trades on the hope of getting a more squeezable Administration from the Liberals than she has got from the Tories, she will only go farther and fare worse. Lord Salisbury and Lord Randolph Churchill will be easier to make terms with, as regards Afghanistan at all events, than the Government of Mr. Gladstone. If Russia hopes anything from a change of Government, it must be rather liberty of action in Europe, than liberty of action in Central Asia.