§ Mr. Sheridan
rose to submit the proposition to the House, of which he had on the last evening given notice; and although he felt it to be a subject of the greatest importance, he still could not coincide in the apprehensions of those who considered this interference with what was called the Standing Order of that House, as a matter attended with mighty difficulties and with peculiar delicacy. In delivering his sentiments upon this subject, it was wholly unnecessary for him to take up any considerable portion of their time. Neither did the plain statement to which he should confine himself stand in need of adventitious ornaments. There was little use for calling forth either the cogency of argument, or the decorations of language, to recommend the course which he should propose; for if the good sense of the House, its willingness to stand high in the estimation of the country, and to hold firm the confidence of its constituents—if all such powerful and persuasive inducements could not influence them, then it would be idle to expect that such auxiliary aids could make an impression. There was nothing in what he should propose which savoured of party motive or of political bias; his sole object was to impress upon that House the vital necessity of meriting by its conduct, at this critical period more than ever, the confidence of the people. That being; his view of the question, he could not lend himself to the apprehensions of those who, from most 324 honourable motives he was convinced, had felt it to be their duty to call into action that mistakenly supposed Standing Order for the Exclusion of Strangers. Unwilling as he was to create any irritation in the discussion of this subject, he still must ask, what was there in the present investigation, in which the House was engaged, that called for concealment and secrecy, disclaimed and refused in a recent inquiry, which from its nature might have pleaded for that delicacy—in that inquiry where the House was compelled to tear aside the veil which the imperfections of humanity had thrown over the frailties of domestic life? Shall then the House grant to an accused ministry that protection which concealment can afford, upon a great question of political importance, involving the honour, the interests, and the character of the county, after having refused it to the son of their sovereign, in a case where the very nature and character of the transactions inquired into would have naturally prompted to the temporary suspension of reporting daily its proceedings? He was ready to believe that ministers did not wish to screen their conduct by such an expedient; and even if they did, he was sure, from the independent political career of the right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke) who had enforced the Order, that he would have disdained to be their instrument for any such purpose. It was not the wish, he was assured, of the two Secretaries of State to have any such course pursued. It had indeed been expressed as the wish of the noble lord (Castlereagh) that the investigation should be as open and public as possible, that the scrutiny into his share of those transactions which were to be the subject of inquiry, should be both strict and rigorous. What, then, could have induced the right hon. gent. to press this Order at this most perilous crisis? What could be the advantage in this House meeting the public hope, by an act which must lead to public disappointment? How can that examination which the country and the House, had proclaimed to be necessary for our honour and security, prove by its publicity through the ordinary channels, to be mischievous to the public interests? From what had fallen from the right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke), it might be inferred that he was apprehensive lest a partial or garbled publication of the evidence might be made by the daily prints. But he must be allowed to observe, that, in the communication of 325 the transactions of that House, the editors of the Public Journals had been uniformly guided by the strictest impartiality. There never was exerted any undue influence, never felt any improper bias in giving parliamentary reports. But if there was one point upon which they were more scrupulous than another relative to the proceedings of that House, it was in correctly and fully communicating the details of evidence when examined at the bar. Were even the editors inclined from motives of their own, or corrupt views of self interest, to excite any improper prejudice by mutilated or unjustifiable statements, he was confident that not one of the gentlemen who were in the habit of taking the reports of that House, would lend himself to such an improper service. Suppose they should not choose to make correct reports of what passed in that House, would it be endured by the country? Would any one purchase their papers which did not give so material a feature of intelligence? Why then preclude them from this particular subject of investigation? Hut the right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke) had stated that the newspapers could take copies of the Minutes printed by the order of the House. They certainly can, but it was wholly at their option; and will it be endured that the country should be deprived of that information which it is most alive to be possessed of, that it should be kept in complete ignorance of what parliament was doing at one of the most awful moments of its existence; for surely it would not be contended that the papers printed by the order of that House could by any possibility circulate throughout the mass of the population of these kingdoms? But even were these documents to circulate, they would only convey the mere questions and answers. All the interlocutory discussion would be suppressed, and perhaps questions of the most vital importance for ever withheld from the knowledge of the people. He would put an instance—had it not occurred when with shut doors they were engaged in debate on a former night, that the whole inquisitorial power of the House of Commons was made questionable? When it was contended by the minister of England, that it had not the power to demand answers from a witness at its bar, because he was a privy counsellor. It was true, that the right hon. gent. who had then thrown, down the gauntlet, had since re- 326 ceded from the contest; yet still he would ask, whether upon an interlocutory discussion of this kind, involving the character, nay the very constitution of that House in the exercise of the whole of its inquisitorial powers, it was not right that the British people should know who were the members in that House, who would support such a principle, and what were the arguments by which such extraordinary doctrine was upheld? He was assured, that were the House polled upon the propriety of enforcing the order of exclusion, the wish of the majority would be to proceed upon the present question, in a similar manner as it had done with the inquiry last session. If, then, such was the feeling of the House, he would put it to hon. gentlemen, whether it was not most preposterous, that it should be in the power of any individual, either in his wisdom or his caprice, to defeat its general wish, and that upon a question in which the House had not the remotest desire to disgust the public mind, by screening itself under the mask of concealment.—He was perfectly assured that the right hon. gent. who had enforced the standing order, did not act from any impression or suggestion that it would be agreeable to, or was desired by ministers, in order to shelter their conduct, from exposure by the publicity of the investigation. He verily believed he was one of the last men who would lend himself to such a purpose and he was, therefore, greatly surprised at his persisting in a measure which could not fail of being highly repugnant to the feelings of the public, as well as highly injurious to the interests of the nation. It was known to be the universal wish throughout the country, that this inquiry should be carried on in the manner most likely to promote the ends of public justice, and would the nation give credit to that House for a sincere and honest desire to comply with its wishes, if they were to involve their proceedings in mystery and concealment? A House of Commons, that regarded its own character, and respected the opinion of its constituents and the public, should not resist the feelings of the public at a period like the present. He begged to ask what was the sanctity of this supposed Standing Order? In the first place, he must contend that it was no Standing Order at all.—Was it a part of the Lex Parliamentaria, one of those fundamental principles the elements of their existence, interwoven 327 with the constitution of the House itself. It was no such thing, but merely took its place among many other good and many other frivolous regulations, affecting the proceedings of that House. It was passed at the opening of the session, upon question which might have been rejected, when proposed, and, of course, liable to revision, and repeal, on any subsequent occasion. But of all other regulations, the present order had this peculiarity, that the very act of enforcing it defeated its object. It had been his lot to have proved this experiment upon a former occasion, when this system of exclusion was insisted upon by rather an obstinate member. Finding that hon. member still determined to persevere, he had assured him, that if the order were to be in future inforced, it should be fully inforced and strictly executed: that he should have the bond and nothing but the bond." This intimation had its effect, and it was not till the present inquiry that any further attempt had been made to inforce the order. But it was a most mistaken idea to conceive that this order empowered any member to call upon strangers to withdraw. It allowed of no such interference, nor invested any member with such authority. Here the right hon. member read the Order, which says, That any stranger appearing in the House shall be taken into custody by the Serjeant. If the House therefore were determined to enforce the Order, they must do it in the very words, and must, direct that all the strangers present be secured; as the Order directly calls upon the Serjeant at Arms to take into actual custody all strangers, without distinction of persons, who shall have intruded themselves into the House. By being present the offence is committed, and any member of the House had no more right to order the culprit who had intruded, to withdraw, than he would have to rescue him after his committal into custody.—The power and authority rested with the Serjeant at Arms alone; and how was he to enforce it? If in proceeding to obey the order the Serjeant should find two or three hundred persons collected in the gallery, it would obviously be impossible for him to take them all into custody, and therefore he must shut them up in the gallery, whilst he went to collect his posse comitatus. But Whilst he is assembling his forces, the debate goes on; the strangers are in possession of all that has passed; and thus, by 328 its very operation, the object of this Standing Order is defeated. But if this Order claims such particular reverence, let it be considered there are many others, which any other member could move to have enforced. For instance, that no footman shall be allowed in the passages leading to this House; and indeed, any member addicted to early rising (a laugh) might, if he were captious, enforce the order for the House meeting at 10 o'clock in the morning. There was also another order, which stated it to be the privilege of members to pass strangers through the House into the gallery, except whilst the House is sitting. Here, then, were two orders wholly irreconcileable, unless it was intended, that the members should introduce their friends, for the purpose of being committed to the custody of the Serjeant at Arms. Was it not, then, a duty to reconcile such orders to themselves, and both to common sense? He did not mean to convey an opinion, or to maintain it as a rule, that there never could arise an occasion when strangers ought to be excluded, but he did wish to have the order so modified that it should not depend upon the caprice or pleasure of any individual member, but should be fairly submitted to the decision of the House: that if any hon. gent. should think proper to inforce the order he should afterwards be called upon to state some reason for his conduct. It would be apparent from this observation, that it was not his intention to move for the repeal of the order: all he wanted was to bring it under the consideration of the House in a constitutional manner.—In the courts of justice, when any particular case excited the public curiosity, the people went in by a rush. Cod forbid that in the House of Commons the gallery should be filled in this tumultuous manner; but if that should happen to be the case, would the House think of taking into custody those who were introduced by members, and in conformity to an order, reputed a standing order. He thought that where strangers were introduced by members, they should be allowed to continue, except when the question was such that it was not proper to be discussed before strangers. Such a subject had not frequently occurred; and he could not conceive why in the present case it should be deemed necessary to exclude strangers. To permit strangers to hear the discussion on this subject, would be the most likely way to ingratiate the House 329 with the public. They had lately been used to it day after day. When the character of the king's son was to he investigated, and his conduct sifted in the minutest manner, not a syllable had been heard of the exclusion of strangers; but, when the conduct and character of ministers was to be inquired into, then it appeared to be a subject too tender and delicate for public inspection in that House. He thought there never was a period in our history, in which it was more necessary for parliament to conciliate the public; and, wishing that to be the case, he would move, "That a Committee of Privileges be appointed to meet to-morrow, in the Speaker's Chamber, to consider the order Of the 25th of January last."
§ Mr. Windham
said, he supposed it might create some surprise that he should, on the present occasion, speak and vote against the motion brought forward by his right hon. friend. This was, however, one of those accidental matters in which he had always differed in opinion with his right hon. friend. His right hon. friend had said, that he thought it a matter of importance; he for his own part confessed he did not think it was. This would frequently be the case. The importance of the war had not weighed sufficiently with his right hon. friend to bring him to the House in the various questions concerning it, that had been discussed since the commencement of the session, though this Standing Order had produced that effect. His right hon. friend had always been an advocate for the liberty of the press. He (Mr. Windham) was the same; but on other grounds, and what had been said by his right hon. friend on the present question, seemed to him to be rather the matter of a threat than an argument. To allude to the enforcement of all other standing orders was a threat, and not an argument. This Standing Order had obtained and been submitted to for a century, and no inconvenience had been found in it till within the last 30 years. His right hon. friend seemed to consider the right of admission of strangers into the gallery as a part of the constitution of that House, whereas, on the contrary, it had been granted as a mere matter of favour. He would first ask, how much the country had gained in the improvement of its affairs since that practice had obtained. He could not say in what respect the country had gained any thing: past times might be contrasted with the present; but still, from the daily manner 330 in which the debates were published, he wanted to know in what way he was to state the advantages accruing to the country. What was the value to their constituents of knowing what was passing in that House? Supposing they should never know, it was only the difference between a representative government and a democracy. Till within the last 20 or 30 years, it not only was not practised as now, but it was not even permitted to publish the debates of that House. So lately as the time of Dr. Johnson, the debates were never published but under fictitious names. He was one of those who liked the constitution as it was, he did not like it as it is. If this practice had been tolerated, winked at, and suffered, it was no reason that it. should on all occasions be continued, and that persons should make a trade of what they obtained from the galleries, amongst which persons were to be found men of all descriptions; bankrupts, lottery-office keepers, footmen and decayed tradesmen. He had heard that the proprietors of papers had talked of the injustice of closed doors. This was taking up the subject as if the admission of strangers into the gallery was a privilege, but it was no such thing, and though he might perhaps think it useful to let it continue after having so long prevailed, he did not allow it to be a privilege. Were that the case, we should come into a state of democracy—a state like that of Athens. He did not think accounts in the daily papers were so desirable as many others did. They had lately exposed themselves and reviled government so far as to assert, that some of their cotemporaries were in the pay of government. What did this prove—not the value or actual importance of papers—but it clearly shewed that if government could have them in their pay, then papers were liable to be let for hire—to be bought and sold—and that the press, which had been thought in this country the palladium of its liberty, was always to be purchased by the highest bidder. He did not wish to establish such a power in the press as to enable it to controul parliament. He did not know any of the conductors of the press; but he understood them to be a set of men who would give into the corrupt misrepresentation of opposite sides; and he was therefore determined not to lend his hand to abrogate an order which, was made to correct an abuse. He now saw that it led to consequences of a most mischievous tendency—no less than change 331 the character of a representative government which presumed confidence in the representative body, into that of a democracy in which every thing was done by the people: and led directly to that despotism which had so lately desolated other countries. He did not like to part with a Standing Order, which, though it might have run to rust, would not in former times have led to any mischief, and he could see no reason why it should now be laid prostrate at the feet of the very worshipful, but he would say not very ancient, corporation of London printers. Those gentry had their favourites. His right hon. friend was esteemed and hailed by them as a general patron of the London press. For his part he could not tell whether his right hon. friend was their patron or their client on this occasion. He thought the House ought to maintain those rules and orders which had so long prevailed. He would assert, that the rights of the House were now in danger of being lost from misuse. It was like shutting up the gates of a park, in order to prevent a custom from growing into a right to a path-way. It was like the O. P.'s, who had set themselves up as the people of the country, and by a system of opposition and violence had compelled the proprietors of the theatre to give them plays at their own price. In this way the proprietors of newspapers told them that the people must have a daily publication of the proceedings of that House at their breakfast; and, in the name of the public, say, we have that right, and have friends in the House that will support us in our claim. His right hon. friend had said the character of the House was at stake; according to which argument, all the Houses that had existed previous to the last 30 years had no character or reputation at ail. His right hon. friend was now also most anxious for the characters of ministers; he could not blame him for that sensibility, but he (Mr. W.) was anxious for the fame of this House, and could not see why they should hesitate in supporting a Standing Order, which had the sanction of so many years in its favour. For these reasons he should certainly give his vote against the motion.
felt compelled to declare the reasons which influenced him to depart from the opinion that he formerly held, in common with his right hon. friend who had just spoken, as to the inexpediency of allowing the publication of the proceedings of the House of Commons. 332 In several of the sentiments expressed by his right hon. friend he readily concurred. He believed with him that the venality of the press was great. He was willing to acknowledge, too, that the last 30 years had produced a considerable change in the constitution and situation of the country; but while he deplored this change, it was impossible for him not to attribute it to events wholly unconnected with the existing practice of publishing in the daily papers reports of the proceedings in that House. He thought that there were other, and far different, causes to which that was more justly attributable. The great and oppressive accumulation of taxes—the long foreign wars—the establishment, to such a great degree, of standing armies—the no less remarkable increase of barracks throughout the country, were, he thought, among some of the principal causes that had led to a change so much to be lamented. With respect to the publication of their debates, he was not so certain. Formerly, he might have thought it productive of much inconvenience; but now that it had been suffered to go on so long, he thought it was desirable that the publicity of their proceedings should experience no material interruption: although had the publication of them in no instance been connived at, he was by no means prepared to deny that he might at the present moment have opposed the introduction of such a practice for the first time. Yet as the public had been allowed regularly to receive a report of the proceedings in parliament, he was desirous that no casual interruption of that permission should occur. He was solicitous that as a change had taken place in the circumstances of the country, and even in the character of parliament, that change should be accompanied by correspondent changes in other respects. To prove that a change had taken place in the character of that House, he need only refer to the discussion of the preceding evening, during which the influence of party and personal considerations was manifested to an indecent and unexampled extent. When it broadly was stated in the House of Commons, as a matter of reproach, that a representative of the people belonged to no party, of which he may be himself an instance, such a statement was indeed evidence of a change, to which he thought the original practice of the House, in other respects, ought to conform. His right hon. friend had said, that the idea of a 333 representative body carried along with it that of the confidence of the persons represented. He wished it might be so. He wished them not only to be united in theory, but to be inseparable in fact; and yet it was but too notorious, that there were many persons who concurred in thinking not only that that House had not the confidence of the country, but that it did not deserve to have that confidence. Most assuredly it was an ill-advised mode of obtaining the general confidence to shut the nation out from obtaining information on au inquiry of the greatest magnitude, respecting which the most lively sensibility had been excited and towards the result of which every eye was steadily and anxiously directed.
§ Mr. Windham
explained. He never intended to attribute all the changes that had taken place during the last thirty years to the publicity of the proceedings of Parliament, but had merely mentioned that publicity as one cause of those changes, and added, that he was not aware of any material good consequences that had resulted from that practice.
said, he must protest, as long as these Standing Orders continued in force, against the supposition, that there was any necessity for a member who should move to enforce the Order, to account for the reasons which induced him so to do. He had felt it to be his indispensable duty to move the Order on the present occasion, from a consideration of them any misstatements, which went forth to the public last year on a very important inquiry before that House. Having stated this, he would remind the House what it was that they were about to do, in entering into any such inquiry as that in which they had been recently engaged. It was no less than performing their great function as the grand inquest of the nation. The grand jury of a county, which was the common inquest, never admitted strangers to be present during the time of their examining evidence. How, then, could it be thought an unwarrantable use of their undoubted privilege, to exercise it at a time when the House was employed in its inquisitorial functions?—With regard to misrepresentations, could gentlemen see nothing of inconvenience, of mischief in the effects of such misrepresentations, forwarded daily throughout the country? He thought this a consideration in itself of no ordinary importance. A right hon. gent. had asked, why they had 334 not proceeded in the same manner in the course of a memorable inquiry last year. He regretted most sincerely they had not, and for his part he took shame to himself, that he had not then enforced the Standing Order. He declared, before God and his country, that if he had had a notion of the real nature .of the case, or of the manner in which it afterwards turned out, he would then, as he did in the present instance, have performed what he thought his public duty. The Standing Order in question was a most ancient Order—this principle was to be found, perhaps, in the original constitution of that House. He solemnly deprecated any injudicious interference with their ancient Orders: under God the maintenance of the commonwealth was owing to the support of the privileges of that House, the support of their privileges was essential to the support of their authority, and notwithstanding what had fallen from a noble lord, he thought the support of the authority of that House essential to the maintenance of the commonwealth.
, in explanation, said, that he had not lent himself at any one period to any vulgar cry, nor had he said that any such influence ought to have weight with an honest representative of the people in discharging his duty to his constituents. But he well remembered when the right hon. gent. was in office, that that right hon. gent. and his colleagues urged, as an objection to the opinions of certain gentlemen, the unpopularity of those opinions, when they were even threatened with the consequences of that unpopularity.
professed himself unable even to guess at what the noble lord alluded to. Had he any charge to prefer against that noble lord or any other person, he should do it openly, and go through it steadily, but as to threatening any hon. member, he hoped he knew too well what became the gentleman to do so.
rose, amidst a cry of "Order! spoke!" to state more particularly the circumstances. At the time of the Peace of Amiens, he and others who disapproved of that peace were told of the great unpopularity of objecting to that measure.
§ Mr. Tierney
said, that whatever charges might be preferred against him, it at least, could not be said of him that he was indifferent to the maintenance of the privileges of that House. He thought them in 335 every possible point of view of the last importance, and of essential value to the constitution of the country. But he would say that the motion of his right hon. friend had been misstated: it was not a motion to rescind the Standing Orders, or any one of them, it was only to refer the consideration of one of them to the Committee of Privileges. For his own part, he was not aware that the Order could be amended, but in that Committee, he supposed, that it was the intention of his right hon. friend, if his motion was acceded to, to propose some suggestion that might or might not be approved of by the Committee. The right hon. gent. had stated, that the House was now in a situation similar to that of a grand jury. There was, however, this striking difference: the proceedings of the grand jury were not published at all; but in this instance, although the House might not choose to allow the newspapers to publish their proceedings from day to day, yet they themselves were aware of the necessity of their being published, and intended to publish them in another manner: and he apprehended that, after 658 copies had been struck off of the proceedings of last night, it could not be supposed that such proceedings would be altogether unknown. He must deny that any precedent existed, at least none occurred to his mind, of strangers having been excluded pending so important an inquiry. When had such a step been taken on such an occasion? Not during the whole American war, when so many military inquiries took place. He was at a loss to conceive what inconvenience could have arisen had the whole of the evidence taken before the Committee of Inquiry yesterday evening been published that morning. Had any misrepresentation occurred, it would only have been necessary to notice it to the House; and if it had been deemed advisable, the further publication of the proceedings might have been prohibited without excluding the public from the gallery. When formerly the debates were published under Roman names, or the names of the different speakers transposed, it was because it was then thought to be a breach of the privileges of that House to publish any of its proceedings; and this was the true state of the question; not that persons published what was false or what was true of their proceedings, but that they published them at all. No man had a right to publish a word of what he (Mr. 336 T.) was then saying. As to misrepresentations in the daily reports of their proceedings, they were certainly productive of much inconvenience. He himself seldom, if ever, looked into reports, so that he could speak impartially; but when he did, he remembered to have felt considerable pain, that sentiments should be put into his mouth, and should go down to his constituents, one syllabic of which he had never uttered. Indeed, the difficulty of being accurate was now greatly increased. He did not blame the reporters, it was impossible they could be accurate, when they attempted to give the speeches at such an inordinate and extravagant length as they now were in the habit of doing. He acquitted them of intentionally misrepresenting what they reported, because it was their interest to do it as accurately as they could. He believed, therefore, that for this reason they would not be guilty of wilful misrepresentation, because those newspapers which gave the most accurate reports will have the most purchasers—as to himself, in the little intercourse he had had with the persons having the conduct of newspapers, he had asked but one favour of them, and that was, that they would do him the kindness to let him alone altogether; but with regard to the public, he thought they had—not a right, for that would be a wrong term to make use of—but something very like a right to know the nature of their proceedings in that House, on great public questions. He believed that it was true, that the state of things had been getting worse and worse for the last 30 years, and all that the public had gained was, the satisfaction of seeing from day to day what were the causes of this constant falling off. When it was considered that now a tenth part was demanded of every man's income, it must be allowed that this was a thing not thought of 30 years ago; and it would be too much to say, the public should not be permitted to know why it is, that this constant increase of taxation is pressing upon them? When large standing armies were maintained in the country, was it too much that the public should know on what grounds they were maintained? Yet from this little luxury the general enforcement of the Standing Order for the exclusion of strangers must inevitably shut them out. If in a Committee of Privileges therefore any modification of the Order could be hit upon in order to prevent its capricious enforcement, would not such an emenda- 337 tion be highly advantageous? And this without the least abandonment of the power which every member possessed of clearing strangers from the gallery at any moment whatever, without any reason assigned. The present inquiry was most important to the public. Never had there been more complicated disasters than those which during the last year had be fallen three of the finest armies which Great Britain had ever produced. Was it not fitting that the public should know in what way the House of Commons were carrying on the inquiry into these events? If, in the noble lord's allusion to blame that he had incurred for not belonging to a party he had pointed to any former expression of his, the noble lord had entirely misconceived him. For himself, he was a party man; he thought no good could be done without party; he was satisfied, that for a member of the House of Commons to come down and to act upon his own principles without reference to concert with others, however theoretically right, was practically erroneous. He did not however asperse those who thought differently; although he could not help remarking, that the noble lord did not seem to act entirely upon the principle which he professed, but to belong to what might perhaps be termed a third party in the House.
supported the motion, and conceived that the Committee of Privileges might easily find out a way of having correct reports published by authority, of whatever passed in that House, without excluding strangers.
§ Mr. Peter Moore
trusted the House would indulge him in saying a few words, in defence of what he conceived to be a very meritorious class of individuals, the editors of newspapers. He was not acquainted with any of them; but he believed they had done more to enlighten and strengthen the public mind than any other class in the community. A right hon. gent. (Mr. Windham) had expressed himself a friend to the liberty of the press, but not to its present practice. If the press was, however, to be still further fettered in its practice, its liberties would be completely annihilated. He remembered to have read in the history of former times, that ministers had given the following advice to their sovereign, "We must destroy the press, or the press will destroy us." But that expression was used in times very different from the present. In 338 these licensed times every editor of a newspaper was registered, and was forthcoming, whenever the Attorney- general might choose to call upon him to answer for any offence against the law. For his part, he could not discern any thing in the conduct of any of the papers which justified the degrading language in which the right hon. gent. on the floor had spoken of them. They were to the public the canals of information; and they paid annually above two millions in duties, being thus much more productive to the state than the canals of commerce. With respect to the exclusion of strangers, was there any thing going forward in the House, of which they were ashamed? Certainly not. Then why exclude the public from hearing their discussions.
Sir F. Burdett
began by noticing the forbearance of many gentlemen to take a part in the debate, from whom he might have expected to hear the ablest defence of the liberty of the press. He must subscribe to many of the doctrines which he had heard from the right hon. gent. because they were constitutional, and which he only found fault with as inapplicable to the present situation of the country. If he could see in that House a body of gentlemen fairly and freely selected by the people as the chosen guardians of their rights—if he could see no placemen or pensioners within these walls, and if no corrupt or undue influence could ever be supposed to operate on the minds of any of the members of that assembly, then, indeed, he should see no particular objection to the inquiry being conducted in secret, and the evidence being given to the public in the manner that was now proposed. Unfortunately, however, the case was different and the House stood in the eye of the public, in a very opposite situation. They stood before the country under circumstances of great suspicion. It had been considered by some, that in point of character they were on their last legs. As for his part, he greatly feared that in reputation that House had not a leg to stand upon.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
rose to order. He stated, that in his opinion it was highly disorderly to assert, that the reputation of the House of Commons had not a leg to stand upon.
§ The Speaker
said, that it was highly disorderly for any member to say that the House of Commons had lost its reputation.
Sir F. Burdett
continued. He had not made the assertion positively, but stated it as his apprehension. But with all due submission, he had not expected such nicety, when he recollected the 11th of May last, and the acquittal of a minister detected in an attempt to introduce, by corrupt means, persons to seats in that House. He had not expected such extreme delicacy from an assembly that had last sessions passed an act by which they stood acknowledged as contaminated, and that by an act of parliament. He felt it his duty, whilst he continued a member of parliament, to speak the truth, and the whole truth, in that House; but, at the same time, he knew he must speak it in a manner agreeably to the order of the House, and conformably to those principles of common decency which gentlemen must observe in every assembly. He could not, however, imagine, that any attention to order would oblige him to suppose such an extreme degree of affectation of purity, as that we must not allow our ears to hear that, which we were not ashamed to do. The motion before them branched into a three-fold point of view—with respect to their former situation, the present practical effect of the enforcement of these orders, and also the particular case. As to the first, what became them formerly to do was not the question now, for they were no longer what they had been then. In the other two points of view, he had no objection to the motion. A right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke) had stated that he was not bound to give any reasons for his motion. As this was his opinion, it appeared to him, that he would have done better in not attempting to give any. He had not specified any particular inconvenience which resulted from strangers being present at the last inquiry. Misrepresentations it was true, had been vaguely complained of, but none had been specified. Inconveniences resulting from the publicity of their proceedings on their inquiry into the duke of York's conduct had been also complained of—but he asked, did no advantages result from that publicity? He thought many had. He had at that time read the minutes, and had seen the daily reports, and he never detected an inaccuracy; indeed, he thought the reports in general given with remarkable accuracy, and with considerable ability.
§ Mr. Sheridan
felt that he should be deficient in respect to his right hon. friend 340 near him (Mr. Windham), as well as to the House and to the public, were he to refrain from making a short reply to the arguments which had been advanced against his motion. It was remarkable, that in the discussion which had taken place, no gentleman on the other side of the House, except the hon. mover of the order, had participated; although he had pointedly suggested to those gentlemen that it was for their honour, and had boldly declared his belief that it was their wish, that the inquiry should be as public as possible. He was anxious to know whether or not they intended by their silence to shelter themselves under the extraordinary doctrines that had been professed by his right hon. friend, and to intimate that they agreed with him in the singular positions which he had maintained. His right hon. friend had begun his speech by criticising his absence from the House on former occasions during the present session. On this subject he must take leave to judge for himself when his presence in the House was necessary, and when not.—His right hon. friend had arraigned him for not being present to support the charges which as he stated had been proved against his Majesty's ministers. On the first day of the session he had attended, and had voted for the amendment. Since that period he had been much occupied with private business, but he had a right when he felt that a question was agitating of infinitely greater importance than any question of a mere political nature could possibly be, to put aside his private business and to attend for the purpose of assisting in the determination of that question. Such was the present question. On the first day of the session he had heard one side of the House arraigning the other as utterly incapable of fulfilling the duties of office. That might or might not be true. But the other side retorted that they were at least as competent as their adversaries, and that they possessed at least an equal share of the public confidence. Now, for what he knew, the country at large, with a very civil kind of impartiality, might believe both parties.—The inference which he would draw from this circumstance was, that the House should guard against adding to the unfavourable impression which such mutual accusations were calculated to produce. His right hon. friend had called him a counsel for the press. If he was so, he was an unfeed 341 one. He was proud of the appellation. But he confessed that he was a good deal surprised when his right hon. friend put in his claim to a share of the distinction. His right hon. friend had, by implication, questioned the use of the liberty of the press! Could his right hon. friend have been serious? Give me, said Mr. Sheridan, but the liberty of the press, and I will give to the minister a venal House of Peers—I will give him a corrupt and servile House of Commons—I will give him the full swing of the patronage of office—I will give him the whole host of ministerial influence—I will give him all the power that place can confer upon him to purchase up submission and overawe resistance; and yet armed with the liberty of the press, I will go forth to meet him undismayed; I will attack the mighty fabric he has reared with that mightier engine; I will shake down from its height corruption, and bury it beneath the ruins of the abuses it was meant to shelter. (Hear! hear!) His only object in the motion which he had submitted to the House was, not to prevent any individual member from clearing the gallery, but to require that after he had done so, he should condescend to give some reason for the step. The right hon. gent. opposite said, it was his humour. That was the very thing of which he complained. If, after the exclusion of strangers, the House should acquiesce in the propriety of the motives for that exclusion, the public would then be satisfied. To some of the opinions of his right hon. friend, he had listened with the greatest regret, and even horror. For the first time in his life, he had almost wished that the public had been excluded from hearing his opinions The friendship which he had long entertained for his right hon. friend, and his regard for his right hon. friend's character and honour, struggling with his own sense of public duty, had nearly induced him to regret that there was a single stranger present to listen to or report his sentiments. His right hon. friend had asserted a broad general principle, that the publication of the proceedings of parliament was injurious to the country. He had declared, that when the doors of the gallery of that House were closed, the country had done well. He (Mr. S.) was not one of those who thought or spoke despondingly of the situation, or degradingly of the character of the country. On the contrary, he was of opinion that 342 Great Britain stood on a proud eminence, struggling as she was, and successfully struggling as he hoped she would be, for the liberties of the world. To what was it owing that she was able to maintain such a contest, and bid defiance to that powerful enemy, who had already overthrown every power against which he had directed his victorious arms, and trampled upon the rights and independence of the prostrate nations of Europe? All this he could attribute to the effect of the liberty of the press alone, and most particularly and emphatically to the unrestrained publication of the debates and proceedings of parliament, It had been asked by his right honourable friend, how such publication could produce any public benefit, or conduce to the well-being or happiness of the nation? To this he would answer, by shewing to the people the grounds upon which public measures were resorted to, and particularly by convincing them of their necessity; thus inducing the public to submit with patience to the heaviest burthens that had ever been imposed upon a nation. His right hon. friend had adverted to the state of the country in former times, when the press was bound in fetters, and the terrors of the Court of Star Chamber blighted every germ of freedom.—But he would tell that right honourable gentleman that the publicity given to all public measures, and especially to great measures of finance, in modern times, had been the principal, if not the sole means of reconciling the nation to a weight of taxes, which in these boasted periods of former excellence would neither have been thought of, nor supposed likely to be borne or endured by the country. He was sorry to hear his right hon. friend resorting to a topic, which he must be allowed to denominate the old bugbear, when he found him gravely asserting, that the practice of reporting the proceedings of that House, which had grown up of late, was likely to encourage revolutionary doctrines, or lead to a revolution. Could it for a moment be supposed that the people of this country, possessing the blessings of freedom, and in the enjoyment of all the benefits of their constitution, could, by reading the debates in that House, be induced to get rid of these blessings and that constitution? Yet, his right hon. friend had thought proper to state, that the freedom of the press, as acted upon in latter times, would, in all probability, reduce this country to the 343 same dreadful state of convulsion and disorder, in which France was involved during the period of her late sanguinary revolution. Was it, he would ask, the liberty of the press that had brought France into that dreadful state of anarchy and ruin, which characterised the revolution? Was it not, on the contrary, the suppression of all liberty of discussion—the prohibition of all publications not sanctioned by the permission of authority—the prevention of that rational and temperate consideration of public interests and measures, which alone could excite and nourish patriotic feelings and public spirit, that had caused all the mischiefs which had attended that revolution? What was it that had caused the downfall of all the nations of Europe? Was it the liberty of the press? No: It was the want of that salutary controul upon their governments, that animating source of public spirit and national exertion. If the liberty of the press had existed in France before or since the revolution—if it had existed in Austria—if in Prussia—if in Spain, Buonaparté would not now find himself in the situation to dictate to Europe, and filling the throne of nearly an universal monarch.—He did not mean to dwell longer on the speech of his right hon. friend, which he must say he had heard with more regret than any thing that had ever fallen from him, and which even the right hon. gentlemen opposite did not think fit to support. He had now but a few words to add on the speech of the right hon. gent. who had first moved the standing order. The principal argument that had been used by that right hon. gent. had been already refuted by the worthy baronet (sir F. Burdett) behind him, in so much that he was certain the right hon. gent. himself, would, on the slightest consideration, be convinced of its irrelevancy and inapplicability to the question of the inquiry before that House, The right hon. gent. had said that in the prosecution of that inquiry the House resembled a grand jury, and had triumphantly asked, whether they had ever heard of the admission of strangers to the grand jury room? But he would ask that right hon. gent., whether he had ever heard of a grand jury publishing the evidence produced before it, or the papers upon which it was called upon to come to a decision? The right hon. gent. seemed to have forgotten altogether that certain papers had been laid upon the table of that House, and 344 ordered to be printed; and that the oral evidence to be taken at the bar was called for, only to supply deficiencies in those papers, or to invalidate or confirm the statements they contained. The right hon. gent. if that was the only argument he could advance, could not support his doctrine, and indeed seemed only to be apprehensive upon the whole, lest he should himself be misrepresented in the course of the inquiry. Why did the grand jury not publish the evidence upon which it was bound to form a decision? Why, but because, as it could be but an ex-parte statement, they would not publish any thing in that shape, which might influence the opinion or verdict of the petty jury? The House was not in the situation of a grand jury, therefore, as it was essential to the proceeding in which it was engaged, to publish the documents upon which it was ultimately to form its decision. And here he could not but notice the consistency of the conduct of the right hon. gentleman. When on a former night the right hon. member had moved the standing order against strangers being suffered to be present, a noble friend of his (lord Ossulston), not the noble mover of the inquiry, had pressed its observance with respect to certain peers, who continued under the gallery after the other strangers had withdrawn. To these peers the right hon. gent. was disposed to concede, what he was for withholding from the other strangers: that is, he would not suffer those, who had no immediate interest in the proceedings, to be present during their progress, whilst he had no objection to the presence of those whose conduct was upon trial. The right hon. gent. had stated, that he was not responsible to him; certainly he could not be (nor to any man), for his conduct, but to his constituents. This was a high and a proud feeling on the part of that right hon. gent.; but if he was not much misinformed and egregiously wrong, no very considerable time had elapsed since that right hon. gent. had betrayed an apprehension to meet his constituents. If his information was correct, or if rumour was to be depended on, in the tottering situation of the present government, they might have had the ministerial assistance of that right hon. gent. if he had not been afraid to look his constituents in the face, and appeal to their sense of his parliamentary conduct.—He had brought forward this motion with all the temper which such a subject and his respect for the House de- 345 manded; and it he had fallen into some warmth in his reply, it was because topics and arguments had been started in the course of discussion, which no gentleman, who had a particle of public principle, or any attachment to the liberty of the press, could listen to without protesting against them. He begged of gentlemen not to mistake his motion, which was not by any means to rescind the Order to which it applied, but to have it referred to the committee of privileges, in order to have it ascertained whether any, or what modification of it was necessary.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
was sorry that he had not had an opportunity of stating the grounds of his vote before the right hon. gent. had proceeded to his reply. The right hon. gent. had asked, whether it was the intention of his Majesty's ministers to pass this question over in silence, and shelter themselves under the opinions delivered by the right hon. gent. (Mr. Windham.) He was ready to admit, that in most of what had fallen from that right hon. gent. he entirely concurred, though he was not prepared to carry his concurrence to the full extent of that right hon. gent.'s opinion, if, as he understood him, it went to the exclusion of strangers altogether from the House. But he thought it necessary, for the dignity of that House, to maintain the privilege, that any member could call for a vote without argument for the exclusion of strangers, whenever such a measure should appear to him to be necessary; and this was the ground of the vote he should give on this question.
|A division then took place—|
|For Mr. Sheridan's motion||80|