HC Deb 11 June 1811 vol 20 cc563-70
Mr. Whitbread

said, he understood the right honourable the Master of the Rolls had, during his absence from the House, on Saturday, contradicted a report which he had noticed in his speech on the preceding evening. Perhaps he ought to apologise for having brought forward the question, which was agitated on that evening, during the absence of his honour; but, as he was present in the early part of the afternoon, and as it was generally understood that the question would come on, he trusted he would be absolved from any blame in that respect. He was not aware of the extent of the contradiction; if it went to deny the existence of any difference of opinion in her Majesty's council, he should be extremely glad to hear it, as it was of very great importance to the public. He would not trouble the House with any further observations on this subject, but would beg leave to present a Petition from the inhabitants of the county of Kent, on the question of Parliamentary Reform. (A laugh.)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

expressed some surprise at the two very dissimilar subjects, which the horn gent. had in tome degree blended together. With respect to the observation he had made, as to the contradiction given by his learned friend, he could, from his recollection of the circumstance, say, that that contradiction was as full and complete as it possibly could be—not only with respect to a division of voices, on a particular fact, that of his Majesty's resumption of the royal functions, but in relation to any division on any subject whatever. Points undoubtedly might have been discussed, but no dissention had prevailed.

Mr. Whitbread

said, he was pleased to hear that there was no foundation for the report which had reached him, under such circumstances as induced him to give it a degree of credit.

The Petition, purporting to be a Petition of the inhabitants of the county of Kent, in full county meeting assembled, was then presented and read; setting forth,

"That the Petitioners, conscious of the rights they possess of addressing; and petitioning the House upon all public affairs, and impelled by a high sense of the duty they owe to themselves and to their country, beg leave to lay before the House their opinions and sentiments on the present defective state of the Representation of the People; that to the wisdom and justice of the original design of convening in parliament the representatives of the people to deliberate and co-operate with the sovereign and the peers upon every question of national concern, the Petitioners give their unqualified approbation; but, when they take into their consideration the decay of some boroughs, once prosperous and well peopled, the rise and flourishing condition of others formerly of little note; when they reflect upon the effects of the heavy and insupportable expence of elections, which closes the doors of the House to many of the best friends of their country, and robs it of their faithful service; when the Petitioners think of these things, they are of opinion that the House is at this time by no means a fair representation of the people; and, from the manner in which a large portion of the individual members obtain and secure their seats in the House, they cannot but infer that that high and sacred office, intended for the public service, is frequently sought for and procured by unconstitutional means, and is too often perverted from its original design, and rendered subservient to private ends; to this cause the Petitioners ascribe the greatest part of the national calamities they now have to deplore, the mean principles and narrow views which have too long governed the councils of the cabinet, the false ambition and little intrigues of its members, the continuance of a system of expenditure lavish beyond example, the many disgraceful expeditions in which the blood and treasure of the country have been too prodigally wasted, the decisions of the House in direct opposition to the general sentiments of the nation, the unwillingness hitherto evinced by the House to promote enquiry into or correct the abuses in the representation, an unwillingness which cannot fail to excite their distrust, and to diminish the respect the Petitioners owe to the name and functions of the House, and they deplore particularly one instance of this unwillingness of which they complain, in the rejection of a motion made in the last session of parliament by one of the members of the county of Herts, as that motion, had it been adopted, must necessarily have brought before a Committee a full enquiry into the present defective state of the representation of the people, and thereby have led to a substantial reform in the Commons House of Parliament, so essential to the salvation of the state, by restoring the blessings of a free constitution, that inestimable inheritance transmitted to us by the wisdom and intrepidity of our ancestors; and that the times demand this open avowal of the sentiments of the Petitioners, and, in the language employed to convey them, they intend no disrespect, though they are persuaded that no words can be too strong to express their feelings on this occasion; therefore they most earnestly intreat the House to undertake, before it is too late, in a true and cordial spirit, the measure of Reform, upon principles which, by conciliating the affections of the people, and restoring to the House its due weight and character, may rescue the country from domestic discord, and secure it from the foreign foe, give stability to the throne, and perpetuate the constitution."

Mr. Whitbread

moved that the Petition do lie on the table, and stated, that he heartily concurred in the object of the prayer, and that his opinion was as strong as it had ever been, confirmed, not weakened by reflection and experience, that there was no chance of salvation to the political interests of the country, except through a Reform in Parliament.

Sir E. Knatchbull

did not mean to oppose the petition being received, although he had some doubts in his own mind as to the legality of the meeting at which it had been agreed to. The high sheriff had convened a meeting of the inhabitants of Kent only—by which means a number of persons who were freeholders, though not inhabitants, were prevented from attending at Maidstone, where the meeting was held. Therefore, he conceived, that this petition did not speak the sense of the great body of Kentish freeholders. He certainly had been at that meeting—but his hon. colleague (Mr. Honywood) was debarred, by illness, from attending. His son, however, had, on be-half of his father, expressed his willingness to present the Petition. He need not state, particularly, what had occurred at that meeting, as the newspapers gave a full and accurate account. He again observed, that although he did not mean to object to the Petition, still he denied that, it contained the sentiments of the majority of the Kentish freeholders.

Mr. Calcraft

observed, that the meeting was one of the inhabitants, not the freeholders exclusively of the county of Kent; and on this account he had himself felt some scruple at attending, in consequence of his not being a resident in the county. He had read the report of the proceedings, and in it he conceived there were some excellent speeches in favour of reform, and others, as he conceived, not so excellent, against it. In looking at the signatures to the Petition, he saw also the names of many, to his own knowledge, most respectable persons, and was satisfied that the prevailing sentiment in the county accorded with his own, that a reform was essential to the best interests of the country.

Mr. Brand

declared himself happy to see this Petition presented to the House, because it sought for a constitutional object in a constitutional manner, and was drawn up in the most proper and decorous language. These were the true means of recovering for the people their undoubted rights. Much difference of opinion had unquestionably prevailed among those who were the most anxious for the accomplishment of this great end; but he could say, that any difference which might have occurred between himself and others on this subject arose from his having modelled his ideas by the standard of the constitution, rather than by any theoretical doctrines of original or primitive rights. If, however, the sense of the counties and the opinions of the inhabitants of the kingdom at large, was not so decisive and unequivocal as he believed it to be in favour of parliamentary reform, still he conceived it to be the bounden duty of the House, when a great evil was pointed out, the existence of which was not to be disputed, the existence of which was not to be disputed, to take measures for its removal. It was their duty, whether petitioned or not by the people, to do what was no less necessary to their own honour than the people's rights. He was filled with a conviction that a reform was indispensible, and that the future prosperity of the empire was deeply involved in its adoption. He had risen, however, principally for the purpose of mentioning the circumstances that had induced him to decline pressing the motion of which he had given notice, this session already approaching to a close. He was aware that it was often and justly said, that the duty of a member of parliament was paramount to every other; but a duty he conceived likewise to be of a very imperious nature, had compelled him to be recently absent for a considerable time. At a period when, by the military regulations and institutions of parliament (and he begged to be understood as not censuring them), the whole population of the country must in twelve years pass under military law, it appeared to be incumbent on all country gentlemen to direct their attention to this subject, so far as it lay within the sphere of their influence. This it was which had lately called him from his parliamentary duties. It was now evidently too late in the session to do justice either to the subject or to the House, in bringing forward his motion, but early in the next it was his intention so to do.

Mr. W. Smith

said, as he had taken so many opportunities to notify his intention of persisting in giving his support to every effort for obtaining parliamentary reform, and as the necessity for it increased every day, he would not then enter into a discussion on the subject. He was sorry the hon. gentleman would not bring forward his motion in the present session, although he had assigned a very good reason for the conduct he had pursued. The hon. baronet seemed to assume, that the petition did not contain the sense of the majority of those possessing property in Kent, because the meeting had only been attended by the inhabitants of the county. But this was far from being conclusive, for it was more than probable that the meeting had been attended by a very great proportion of freeholders; and he did not think that there was any reason to suppose that the Petition did not speak the sense of the non-resident freeholders, as well as of the inhabitants. The freeholders necessarily having a share in the representation, which many of the inhabitants had not, he thought a very strong reason for calling the latter together. He looked upon the statement of the hon. baronet to be an assumption not borne out by any proof.

Sir E. Knatchbull

observed, he merely meant to state, that the sentiments contained in the petition were not those of the county at large.

The Marquis of Tavistock

professed his hearty concurrence in the prevalent desire for a Reform of the Representation. He believed that what dissatisfaction existed in the minds of the people was to be attributed to the want of that reform. He rose, however, now to give notice, that early in the next session, he intended to move for leave to bring in a bill to prevent the enormous expences of contested elections. (Hear!) If he should be so happy as to succeed in this object, he should then move for a repeal of the Septennial Act.

Mr. Wortley

did not believe, as had been stated, that the majority of the people of England were in favour of parliamentary reform. At particular periods the people appeared to be intent on the measure; but, when they saw into whose hands it had got, they recovered their usual good sense.

Sir John Newport

observed, it was most fallacious to assert, that the people returned with pleasure to their imperfect state of representation, when they beheld in whose hands the question of parliamentary reform was placed. He would call the attention of the hon. gent. who had made the assertion, and of the House, to those great men who had supported the measure—the late Mr. Pitt, sir G. Saville, and that right honourable personage on whose model the gentlemen opposite professed to ground themselves. Could these be considered as men whose recommendation would have the effect stated by the hon. gent.? If the people were at one time more ardent in the cause than at another, he could only account for it by referring to discoveries being made at particular periods, of such a nature, as to point out the paramount necessity of Reform. It was his firm conviction, that nothing short of Reform, and the exercise of a principle of renovation on the part of the House could reconcile the people to the growing burdens of the country.

Mr. Lushington

expressed his opinion that the sentiments of the people were not so generally in favour of Reform as had been represented.

Mr. Whitbread

said he knew the Petition to have been subscribed by numerous and most respectable signatures. An hon. baronet had said that the meeting had not been legally convened. The meeting had been convened by the Sheriff, and was of course legal. The hon. baronet had spoken of the news-paper report, and allowed it to have been full, fair and perfectly correct. Now, there was a part of that report, which he (Mr. Whitbread) had conceived to have been an error, until he had heard the very candid acknowledgment of the hon. baronet. The part he alluded to, was, where the hon. baronet was represented as declaring in answer to a question of how he voted, that he did not recollect whether he had been in the House or not upon that occasion (a laugh). An hon. gent. had said, that there were periodical fits of Reform. All he could say was, that his fit had been of tolerable long continuance, it had lasted thirty years; and he believed that the fits of many other gentlemen would be found to have been equally obstinate. It had been also said, that the people of this country grew indifferent to the cause of Reform, from seeing into what hands it had fallen. He could not see what grounds there were, either for presuming that indifference on the part of the people, or if it did exist, imputing it to such a cause. In many of his friends who were active and consistent supporters of Reform, he saw no ground for any such apprehension. He could not see in the character or conduct of the hon. member for Hertfordshire, rooted as that hon. member was in the esteem and respect of all good men, any reasons to warrant such a conclusion. He saw no reason why a cause should be injured by the support of such men as the noble descendant of the House of Russell, and many other personages who had the greatest interests in the safety and happiness of the country. As to what the hon. baronet had said respecting the persons of whom the meeting at Maidstone was composed, the Petition stated expressly that it was from the inhabitants, and not the freeholders merely, therefore it did not require the interference of the hon. baronet to put the House in possession of what they already knew. He concluded by repeating it as his conviction, that unless there was a Reform there was no salvation for the empire.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, that whenever there was a Petition before the House, he should, whenever he thought necessary, interfere to offer his sentiments without asking the leave of the hon. gentleman.

The Petition was then ordered to lie on the table.

Forward to