HC Deb 24 June 1808 vol 11 cc1042-56
Mr. Wharton

brought up the report of the committee on the Appropriation bill. The amendments were read a first and second time. On the motion, that they be agreed to,

Mr. Whitbread

rose, and expressed him-self to the following effect:—Mr. Speaker; As the session appears hastening to a close, I am desirous of putting to his majesty's ministers some questions, with respect to the various internal and external relations of the empire, which, it appears to me, to be more convenient to state collectively, than to make them the subjects of separate discussions in this house. For this purpose, sir, I should have availed myself of the opportunity which the Vote of Credit afforded me, had I not been apprehensive, from circumstances of which the house must be aware, that such a proceeding at that time would have led to a discussion which, in my opinion, was to be deprecated. But, sir, by the usages of the house of commons, many occasions arise in which questions of the nature to which I have alluded, may be put to his majesty's ministers, and the reception of the report of the Appropriation bill is one. I shall therefore take advantage of it.—Sir, the present session has been a very laborious one, and has extended to very great length: as much business has been done in the course of it, as was, perhaps, ever done in any preceding session of parliament. Not only, sir, has the attendance of members in the house itself, been most assiduous, and at the same time highly creditable to themselves, but also their attendance in the committees assembled upon matters of the deepest national importance. By the committee on the West India trade, a Report has been made, on which a bill was introduced into parliament, of which, as it has now become a law, I shall only say, treat I hope and wish it may conduce to afford the relief to the West India Planters predicted from it; and I trust, sir, that the subsequent Reports which have been presented from the same committee, will meet with a serious investigation, and that every effort will be made to remedy the evils which they point out. The Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company have made a great progress in the execution of the task entrusted to them. I think the public has a right to expect that the Accounts between the government and the East India Company are finally closed; and that the latter can have no further claim on the former. Long as the session of parliament has been, it certainly has been somewhat shortened in consequence of the recommendation of the right hon. gent. opposite to me (Mr. R. Dundas) to the East India Company, not to press for any assistance by loan or otherwise during the present session. I trust, sir, the right hon. gentleman near him consented to this postponement on a deliberate view of the subject, and that he will not be disposed, during the recess, to give way upon any alleged motives of temporary convenience. Early in the next session the subject may be brought under our consideration, and it will then be for the house of commons to decide upon it.—Sir, the result of the labours of another committee, of which I had the honour to be chairman (the Lottery committee), has been this day presented to the house. Sir, I call the attention of the right hon. gent. opposite, and if it were possible, I would call the attention of all his successors in office, to that report. For when the evidence shall be read, it will disclose a scene of fraud and misery, which it appears to me to be impossible that any chancellor of the exchequer can contemplate without a determination of abandoning that ruinous scheme of finance by which such evils are engendered.—Another Committee, sir, has this session, for the third time, been instituted; I mean the Committee of Finance. From this committee I fear the public has little or no chance of deriving any information during the present session, if I may judge from the answer made a few evenings ago, by the hon. chairman of that committee, to a question which I took the liberty of proposing to him. Whatever may be the reasons which caused this delay, they are not now to be ascertained. The honourable chairman informed us, that as far as lay in him, the Report was in readiness to be presented; nay, that it had been so before the Easter recess. Sir, whether there is any thing in the constitution of this Committee which renders useless the labours of the most assiduous of its members, or whatever mysterious impediments may exist to delay the delivery of their Report, are matters which must in the next session of parliament be fully developed, in order that the causes which have produced so much public disapprobation may be effectually removed.—Sir, I am happy to say, that there is one part of our situation which, at the present moment, we are fortunately enabled to contemplate with a greater degree of satisfaction than at any period for a number of years past; I mean the state of Ireland. This is not owing, certainly, to any thing that has been done, but to the reception experienced in this house, daring the present session, by a motion made by a right hon. friend of mine (Mr. Grattan.) That circumstance, sir, has diffused a calm over the minds of men with regard to Ireland, which has not been felt for many years. It tends to show by what small efforts of conciliation it is possible to do away, in that country, all feelings of hostility, of distrust, of regret; and I trust, that by the measures of future sessions of parliament, this favourable impression wilt be considerably increased. Sir, I wish to obtain some information with respect to the operation of the Orders in Council. At the conclusion of a session, in the commencement of which measures proposed for the improvement of our commerce, after repeated discussions in both houses of parliament, were carried by large majorities; after eight months have elapsed, it is natural to ask, whether those measures have produced the beneficial effect which was predicted from them. This is an information which our constituents have a right to expect from us. It is desirable to know the result; that, if successful, those who opposed the measure may acknowledge their mistake, and those who supported it may congratulate themselves on their superior sagacity. One expectation held out by the right hon. gent. opposite was, that the measure would act so oppressively on the enemy as to subdue his inveteracy, and incline him to make peace with this country on terms more advantageous than could otherwise be expected. I should like very much to know, whether in the right hon. gent.'s opinion this effect has been produced. I should also, sir, like to know, whether the right hon. gent. has actually carried the Orders in Council into execution, or whether he has not rather allowed their tendency to be defeated by the system of Licences. It is necessary that this point should be ascertained, lest we should confound two things and ascribe to the enforcement of the Orders in Council a consequence which has resulted from the violation of them. To all these questions, sir, I am fully sensible that I depend solely on the courtesy of the right hon. gent, for an answer; I have always felt that I did so on former occasions. It appears to me, that it is for the convenience of the house of commons, that questions should be thus asked and thus answered, on subjects which might otherwise form the ground-work of separate discussions. I beg, therefore, that I may not be under- stood to be arrogant by this mode of proceeding. I will now therefore go on, sir, to observe, that the right hon. gent, must know, that the pressure arising from the stagnation of trade, has produced symptoms of disturbance in some parts of the kingdom. I wish to touch on this subject lightly. I am aware that it is one not at all calculated to produce alarm, but very much calculated to produce commiseration. No one can doubt, sir, that every disposition to tumult, however excited, must be repressed; yet some distinction ought to be made with reference to the cause. Without entering into a more minute explanation, I may be allowed to express my hope, that his majesty's ministers will keep this consideration in their view; and that in any steps which the public good may render it necessary for them to take, they will exercise their power with lenity, where they perceive that the circumstances which call for the exercise of that power, arise out of the depression of commerce; that they will afford all possible relief, where relief can be afforded; and that they will not attribute the conduct which may demand their interference, to any other motives but those which I have already mentioned.—So much, sir, for the internal relations of the empire. I will now proceed to the external relations, and hope to receive an answer to such of my questions as can be answered with propriety. They will range themselves under two heads; Sweden and America. And first, with respect to America, I wish to know, as far as it can be disclosed with discretion, what is the real situation in which the British and the American governments stand with regard to each other. If, sir, I may trust that channel of information which is alike open to every man, the public papers, I see that congress has been prorogued for the session, but that the embargo still continues. Thus it appears that one of the effects anticipated from the Orders in Council has failed. England holds out; America holds out; nor does there appear any probability of a relaxation on the part of the latter.—With respect to the Expeditions which are about to sail, I neither wish to know nor ask their destination; nor were I to make the enquiry, would the right hon. gent, be justified in satisfying me. I hope that their object has been well considered; I am sure that they are under the command of able and experienced officers; and I trust that the result will be glorious and useful to the country But, sir, I cannot avoid remarking, that a British Expedition has for a long time been lying idle in the ports of Sweden. This is a point on which I wish for explanation. That expedition also is commanded by an officer of distinguished merit, and the public approbation fully justified his appointment to a situation of such critical responsibility. At the same time, sir, I must observe, that the accidental presence of that officer in England to take the command of the Swedish expedition, deserves explanation. I say accidental, because, if public report is to be credited, the arrival in England of sir John Moore from Sicily, was as unexpected by his majesty's ministers as by the country at large. It certainly appears extraordinary, that a force of 10,000 men, employed in the defence, of such an important point as Sicily, should reach the English shores without the previous knowledge of government. Did this arise from any clerical error in the orders, or from any blunder of another description? Without dwelling any longer upon this point, I will proceed, sir, to the principal circumstance, which is, as I before observed, that there is now lying in the ports of Sweden a large British force, completely inactive; and that at a period of the year the most favourable for military operations. From the manner in which the right hon. gent. opposite spoke of the sentiments of the king of Sweden, when the Swedish treaty was presented to the house, one might have been led to suppose, that when the time of action arrived, some previous concert would be found to have been established with respect to the mode in which the troops sent by this country should be employed. It was therefore, sir, that the public was extremely surprised to learn, that immediately on the arrival of the troops under sir J. Moore in Sweden, the quartermaster-general (an officer whose absence palsied an army) was sent back to this country for instructions; and that on his return to Sweden sir John Moore set oil' for Stockholm to concert a plan of operations. These are points which demand explanation. I wish also to be informed respecting the commercial relations between Great Britain and Sweden. Have arrangements been made that the boasted arrangements for the protection of our commerce shall not be completely defeated by our best ally? The right hon. gentleman said on a former occasion, that he trusted to the justice, to the libera- lity, to the discernment of the king of Sweden, to have our commercial plans seconded by him. Have the expectations of the right hon. gentleman been fulfilled?—Not any thing more, sir, occurs to me on which to call the attention of his majesty's ministers, except that most important subject which formed the basis of the motion that I had the honour of submitting to the house on the 29th of Feb. last. I then stated, that it did not appear to me degrading to this country to propose a negociation for peace with France. At no period of the interval which has elapsed, has it appeared to me that such a proposition would be degrading. Nor can I anticipate during the recess which is about to take place, any circumstances, the occurrence of which can by possibility render it inexpedient or degrading, on the part of this country, to open such a negociation. Having said thus much, sir, I shall sit down, trusting to the candour of his majesty's ministers, that they will afford to me and to the country every satisfactory explanation with regard to those subjects on which they can communicate information without detriment to the public service.

Mr. Secretary Canning.

—Sir; the hon. gent, needs no apology for making any observations, or proposing any questions to his majesty's ministers, which to him may seem advisable. I will endeavour, sir, as far as I am able, and with the utmost disposition to frankness on my part, to give to the hon. gent, the satisfaction which he requires. In doing this I will begin with the topics with which he concluded his speech. The hon. gent, expresses great surprise that the armament sent to the assistance of the king of Sweden, has not yet commenced active operations. The answer to this remark, sir, is to be found in the proposition that this armament was sent to the assistance of the king of Sweden. It was sent to co-operate with the forces of an ally; to be subject to the plans of warfare which that ally might direct; if in the interval that has elapsed from the fitting out of the expedition considerable changes have taken place in the posture of affairs, and in the military councils of Sweden, that circumstance would sufficiently account for the inactivity of the British force. If any blame can be imputed to his majesty's government on this head, it must be for the decision which projected the expedition, and for the promptitude with which that decision was carried into execution, without waiting until all possible chance vanished of its remaining unemployed on its arrival. But the hon. gent. expresses great surprise that the gallant commander of that expedition was found in England to be placed at the head of it. Sir, I have in a great measure explained this circumstance on a former occasion. The force under the command of sir John Moore, in Sicily, was removed from Sicily to Gibraltar at the eve of a considerable military operation in that quarter of the continent, and when it was highly important to afford the army engaged in that operation the double chance of receiving and from home and from abroad. Sir John Moore arrived at Gibraltar in the latter end of November, two days after the emigration of the royal family of Portugal. Having waited for some time, of coarse in vain, for a communication with sir Sidney Smith, he, in pursuance of his orders, and not in consequence of an error, returned home. As to the impolicy of leaving Sicily with an inadequate garrison, I am ready to admit, that if it were possible it would be highly desirable to attend, at the same time, to every point of our military defence; but, sir, this is impossible: there are occasions on which a small risk must be run, for the hope of performing a great service. On this principle it was that his majesty's government thought it advisable to weaken for a time the garrison of Sicily. Whether in doing so they were or were not justifiable, it is for the country to decide.—I now advert, sir, to the questions of the hon. gent, connected with our commerce. He asks whether his majesty's government have any security for the co-operation of Sweden in their commercial arrangements? Sir, I have no doubt that at this moment a treaty has been signed at Stockholm, not of indulgent, but of hearty co-operation in those arrangements. As soon as the Swedish government were told what was expected from them by this country, without waiting for the formalities of a treaty, they entered cordially into our views; but, sir, it was thought advisable that a regular treaty should be concluded, and I repeat that I have no doubt that ere this it has been signed.—America, sir, is the next subject of the hon. gent.'s speech which I shall notice. Of nearly all that has passed between the two countries, the house and the public have been put in possession by the publications of the American government. I presume that the hon. gent. does not intend to blame his majesty's ministers for not having made similar communications to parliament; for if he had thought such communications necessary, he would doubtless have moved for them. Without censuring their production by the American government, his majesty's ministers have felt that the transaction being pending, any appeal from government to parliament would look as if it were concluded. I shall only state, that in the whole conduct of the British government, with respect to the affair of the Chesapeak, we have endeavoured to keep in view the principle upon which we set out; namely, to make ample reparation for that which was a decidedly wrong act; but to make that reparation under a firm determination not to surrender a right which the great majority of the country has ever considered as essential to its dearest interests. Sir, I may boldly appeal to the country to determine whether, from the correspondence on the table of the house, any such disposition on the part of his majesty's ministers has appeared through the whole transaction. That the rupture of the negociation on this subject was not attended with any hostile feeling on either side is an incontrovertible truth. The reparation was not accepted by America, because America would not fulfil the condition on which alone it was tendered; namely, the revocation of that proclamation by which British ships were not allowed to enter the harbours of America, while those of the enemy visited them at pleasure. But, sir, the manner in which the British reparation was tendered to America by a special mission, was, to all the feelings of nice honour, an effective reparation; and so, in fact, we have every reason to believe that it was considered by the American government. With respect, sir, to the embargo, and to the probable effects of the Orders in Council in producing its abandonment, the hon. gent. has misstated my right hon. friend's propositions. The hon. gent, declares my right hon. friend to have predicted that the Orders in Council would do away the embargo, whereas my right hon. friend only argued, in opposition to the hon. gentlemen on the other side, that the Orders in Council did not produce the embargo; that they were not substantively known in America when the embargo took place; and that they were not included in the complaint made by the American government to congress, on which complaint the embargo was founded. Nor, sir, do I think that the Orders in I Council themselves could have produced any irritation in America. If I were not disposed on this occasion to avoid making any observations that might be suspected of a party feeling, I would say, that I do think the irritation in America may have been produced by the echo of the discussions in this house. Sir, since the return of Mr. Rose, no communication has been made by the American government, in the form of complaint, or remonstrance, or irritation, or of any description whatever; I mention this particularly, because it is notorious that there have been several arrivals from America, supposed to be of great importance, and that several special messengers have reached this country from thence, after having touched at France. But, sir, if the hon. gent, in the execution of his public duty had thought fit to move for any communications that had been made by the American government since the departure of Mr. Rose, my answer must have been, not that his majesty's government were disinclined to make them, but that absolutely there were none to make. If it be asked why? I am unable satisfactorily to reply. I can only conjecure that America has entered into negotiations with France which are expected to lead to some result, and that the communications of America to this country are to be contingent on that result. This, sir, is conjecture alone, but it is founded on the extraordinary circumstance of so many arrivals without any communication. It cannot be expected of me, that I should state prospectively what are the views of his majesty's government on this subject. The principle by which they have hitherto been guided, they will continue invariably to pursue. They attach as much value to the restoration, and to the continuance of cordiality, and perfect good understanding with America, as any men can do; they are ready to purchase that advantage by every justifiable conciliation; they have proved that readiness by the act of the present session, in which the trade of America has been placed on the most favourable footing; but, sir, they are not ready to purchase that advantage, great as they acknowledge it to be, at the price of the surrender of those rights on which the naval power and preponderance of Great Britain is immutably fixed. The hon. gent, has alluded, with proper delicacy, to some unpleasant circumstances which the present stagnation of commerce has produced in a part of this country, but, sir, in making this allusion, he has offered to the executive government a piece of advice, which, I trust, is unnecessary. He has recommended to us, sir, in any measures which the excesses of the misguided may compel us to take, to discriminate between the objects of mercy and those of justice; and not to apply to innocence, goaded by want to imprudence, the punishment which belongs only to indefensible guilt. Sir, I trust it was perfectly unnecessary for the hon. gent. to lay down this principle for the guidance of his majesty's government. And, sir, if among those who, by the real pressure of the times, are incited to tumult, men should be found who, without themselves experiencing any inconvenience, avail themselves of the irritation of others to forward views of a very different nature, then, sir, I trust, that to such men the hon. gent, would not wish his principle of lenity to apply. I state this, only because I think that the recommendation of the hon. gent, is rather too much of a sweeping description, and that it implies a proposition which I do not choose at this moment either to contradict or to adopt; namely, that one cause alone, the pressure of the times, is enough to produce the evils to which he has alluded, and that no other can exist in aid of it.—Sir; the hon. gent, inquires whether the operation of the Orders in Council has produced the full effects expected from it? But he does not state fairly the extent of the expectation. It never was supposed by his majesty's government, that the Orders would throw no impediment in the way of the commerce of the country: we expected that they would impede the commerce of the country, but we imposed this restriction, because restriction existed elsewhere, and because we thought that the restriction of the enemy would be more successfully combated by a defying restriction on our part than by helpless acquiescence and unresisting supplication—means unworthy of the British nation. I have now, sir, gone through most of the hon. gent.'s observations, except those which related to the different committees of this house, to the general course of parliamentary business, and to the laborious attendance of members during the present session. Sir, I shall add but a very few minutes to that attendance in expressing my cordial concurrence in the sentiments of the hon. gent.; and I am persuaded, my right hon. friend near me (the chancellor of the exchequer) is by no means disposed to dissent from the hon. gent.'s opinion, that this has been one of the most severe and laborious sessions that was ever known. If the hon. gent. reflects with complacency on his share of the proceedings of the session, we have also the satisfaction to reflect that we have done our duty in it, and we certainly anticipate its close with a feeling of satisfaction. I will not extend it still further by wasting the time of the house in descanting on the desire which it is rational to suppose that government must feel for the restoration of a peace, I will not say consistent with the honour of the country alone, but a peace by which her future safety and independence may be secured. The disposition which has ever existed in the minds of his majesty's ministers on this subject, and which was distinctly declared by us on the motion made by the hon. gent, at the commencement of the session, remains unchanged. But, sir, I think, that under the present circumstances, the hon. gent, will scarcely expect us to declare, whether or not we think there is any prospect of an opening for that event. The hon. gent. may rest assured, that we feel as much as he, or any man, can feel, the difficulties in which the country is involved; but we also feel, that she has energy and resources enough to contend, so long as it may be necessary to contend, for the maintenance of her power and independence; but to say any thing further on this subject, to attempt to predict whether peace is probable or hopeless, would, in my opinion, sir, tend only, in the one case to relax exertion, in the other, to aggravate evil.

Mr. Whitbread

declared that he had asked for no information with respect to the probability or the improbability of peace; he had only called the attention of government to that important subject. The right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer, notwithstanding what had been said by the right hon. gent, who had just spoken, had certainly held out the expectation that the enforcement of the orders of council would induce America to see her true interest, and that she would in consequence withdraw her embargo. The fact, however, was otherwise. As to what the right hon. gent, had said of the echo of the debates in that house, having produced an irritation in the American mind, which was subsequently allayed, such a statement was a general reprobation of every public deliberative assembly. If the members of the house of commons were not to speak their opinions freely, it were better that the house of commons did not exist. But this was the common topic of all ministers, little considering that the good far outbalanced the evil. In the present instance he did not believe that any evil had been produced. The right hon. gent, had expressed his satisfaction at the approaching close of the session, and had been, very pleasant on the gratification which this circumstance would give to his right hon. and learned colleague. He could assure him that he was not less pleased with the prospect than himself, and that if he felt any Of that complacency in the retrospect which the right hon. gent, had ascribed to him, it was not so much at what he had actually done, as at the line of conduct he had pursued. There was one topic of national importance on which he had not touched, namely, the internal defence of the country. The reason was this. On a recent evening, a right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke), in a speech containing some tremendous truths, had called upon a noble lord opposite for an explanation on that subject; and in his own emphatic language had asked the noble lord, whether our fortifications were in such a state, that if Buonaparte were to see them he would pull off his hat to them with respect? The noble lord had replied that the fortifications of the coast were in some places complete, and in others advancing to completion; and also that the other military arrangements for the distribution of our force were of such a nature that every person might lay his head upon his pillow, and sleep in security.—He would trouble the house with a few words on what had fallen from the right hon. gent. respecting the return of sir John Moore. Every body knew that a small risk ought to be run for a great object; but although it might have been very advisable in the pursuit of some important object, to leave Sicily for a short time without an adequate defence, he confessed he could not divine why the force under sir John Moore did not return from Gibraltar to the defence of that island, instead of a fresh force being sent out from this country for that purpose. He had always been given to understand, that the return to England of sir John Moore, had been occasioned by a mistake which might happen to any administration; but the right hon. gent. had claimed the blame for his maj.'s ministers, by declaring that the return of that gallant officer was in conformity to his instructions. In his opinion, a great risk had been incurred for a little object; for certainly it was a great risk to leave Sicily undefended for such a length of time.—He was very happy to learn, that the commercial arrangements between Great Britain and Sweden were of so satisfactory a nature. He would take it for granted (although the right hon. gent, had abstained from touching on this part of the subject), that it was intended to put the Orders in Council into full activity in this country. If so, and if facilities were to be given to their operation in Sweden, then on the commencement of the next session of parliament, the country would see, without the possibility of evasion, whether those Orders had been founded in wisdom, as asserted by his majesty's ministers, or whether, as it was asserted by his side of the house, they were an instance of the grossest political absurdity that was ever committed. The question would be fairly at issue. Undoubtedly it was the wish of his friends, and of himself, that they might be mistaken upon it.

Mr. R. Dundas

replied to those observations of the hon. gent. which related to the affairs of the East India company. The hon. gent, had asked whether the account between his majesty's government and the East India company had been brought to a final close; and whether the sum that had been already voted was all that it was intended to propose on that subject? Undoubtedly, in his apprehension, as far as related to the account of which the balance was struck, with the exception perhaps of some items, of which only a rough estimate had been given, for want of the necessary documents. But it should be observed, that the account between government and the East India company was an account current, and that if the balance were struck at a particular period, the account still going on, the result must necessarily alter. The hon. gent. supposed that the aids to the company would be sufficient to carry them on till the re-assembling of parliament. The fact was, that at the commencement of the present session, circumstances led him to suppose that the company would require further aid; but the balance due to them from government turning out to be larger than was imagined, and the company's affairs assuming a more favourable aspect, as far as related to their sales at home, he had now no hesitation in declaring, that his decided opinion was that the company could go on very well without further assistance until the reassembling of parliament. He had therefore not felt authorised to come to parliament for any further aid during the present session. Whether parliament would be called upon in the next session for further aid he knew not, but if they were, he thought they would do well, not merely to consider the pecuniary circumstances of the company, at the time when such aid might be required, but to look into all the bearings of their affairs, and to consider how far such aid might be accompanied by regulations, which would place the company in a better situation than that in which they were now placed.—The amendments were then agreed to, and the bill was ordered to be read a third time to-morrow.