HC Deb 07 February 1817 vol 35 cc245-52
Mr. Calvert

rose to present the petition of the lord mayor, aldermen, and livery of London, in common hall assembled, praying for a reform in parliament, for public economy, abolition of sinecures and unmerited petitions, and for triennial parliaments. How the petition came into his hands, he really could not explain, for it was usual when the city of London petitioned parliament to have it presented by its own members; but he supposed some of those hon. gentlemen would be able to account for it. Having the honour, however, to being it forward, he should merely observe, that the petitioners prayed for a general reform, but wished for no dangerous innovations. They duly valued and appreciated the constitution of this country, not the impaired constitution as it now existed, but that constitution which bur ancestors obtained and transmitted to us. Upon that point, he could not do better than employ the words of the petitioners themselves: "disclaiming all wild and visionary plans of reform, we are not ignorant of the nature, nor insensible of the value of our glorious constitution; in theory the most sublime and matchless exhibition of human wisdom, the admiration and envy of surrounding nations." Such was the language of the petition, and abstaining himself from entering, on the present occasion, into any of the topics which it embraced, he should merely move that it be brought up and read.

Mr. Alderman Atkins

said, he could relieve the hon. member from all doubt as to how the petition came into his possession, by stating that it was because himself and his brother representatives were not thought worthy of presenting it. The reason he had not been intrusted to present the petition was, that he would not pledge himself to support, without any consideration, a measure of such importance; he had been called on to present and support. But he had never been present when such a measure had been canvassed: whenever it should, he would give it his best consideration. Perhaps some little alterations might be desirable; and when the measure should be discussed, he should be ready to express an opinion; but his constituents would not be satisfied unless he would support the measure right or wrong, though it could not yet be agreed what measure should be adopted: nay, they had not agreed among themselves: two out of five parts had voted for annual parliaments, and the remaining three for triennial. He had thus shown the reason why the petition did not come by him, and he hoped the hon. gentleman who presented it was ready to support it right or wrong.

Sir W. Curtis

said, he had made up-his mind upon the matter. He was not in the situation of the hon. alderman, for he had sat in that House on many occasions when the question of parliamentary reform was agitated, and he was satisfied the constitution of that House was just what it ought to be. He was sure all the new regulations which they wished to adopt would not mend it; and to use an old adage, "it was best to let well alone." Entertaining that view, he had therefore declared he would do all he could to oppose the petition The hon. member who presented it, was, on the contrary, if he had read it correctly, a friend to annual parliaments and universal suffrage.

Mr. Calvert

said, the hon. baronet was misrepresenting him. So far from being a friend to the scheme of annual parliaments and universal suffrage, he considered them as most wild and dangerous. All he wished was, that the decays of the constitution should be repaired.

Sir W. Curtis

said, he was sorry he had misrepresented the hon. member, and he was afraid it was owing to his eyes not being so good as they were [a laugh]. He had at least construed the speeches he had read of that hon. member in that way.

Sir James Shaw

approved of that part of the petition which prayed for economy and reduction; but the reform required, appeared to him visionary. Every thing called for retrenchment, and he thought the magnanimity with which the people had endured the burthens of the late contest, entitled them to every relief which his majesty's ministers could give.

The petition was then read.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, he rose merely to observe upon what had fallen from the worthy alderman, as to the sentiments expressed by his constituents with respect to their representatives. The worthy alderman said, that all the members of the city were deemed unworthy of the confidence of their constituents. With the greatest respect for the worthy alderman, he must however beg leave to contradict that assertion. He was sure, if the worthy alderman recollected himself, he would not say that the four members for the city were unworthy of confidence. He might affirm that himself, and two others, had forfeited that confidence; but he would surely add, that there was one, who would not have been declared unworthy of it, if he had been capable of attending the meeting of the common hall.

Mr. Calvert

said, he must leave it to the city members themselves to find out why they were not trusted; he could only say, for himself, that the petitioners did not exact any pledge from him to support the prayer of the petition. He was willing, however, to declare his intention of supporting any plan of reform which that House, upon mature deliberation, might deem wise and proper. Some reform was unquestionably necessary. A noble lord, on a former occasion, had stated the way in which he got into parliament for the borough of Honiton, by sending the bellman round the place, and offering ten guineas a piece for votes. He also could state a fact, which showed the defects of the present mode of representation. He was one of six persons who had sent two members to parliament, and for which each member paid 4,500l. [Hear, hear!] Such a system ought not to exist.

Mr. Lambton

said, he certainly understood the worthy alderman to affirm that all his brethren were convicted of being unworthy to present the petition now before them. He rose, however, for the purpose of stating, that he entirely concurred in every thing expressed by the petitioners, not only in what related to economy and retrenchment, but in all that concerned a reform of that House. The time was now come when it would be no longer possible to delay the inquiry; and he trusted they would not only correct the abuses which existed, but, in a steady, temperate, and dignified manner, investigate the causes of those abuses. After what had been stated by a noble lord, it was too evident that seats might be obtained in that House, by money, by interest, or, indeed, by any means, but that of the fair, unbiassed, and unbought suffrages of the people. He was as little disposed as any individual to sanction those wild, foolish, and disgusting principles of reform which were promulgated by certain persons out of doors — principles (if they could be called so) which were founded upon the subversion of our constitution, upon the destruction of social order, and of all that was wise, permanent, and useful in our invaluable system of law and government. The disturbances occasioned by those men had at least been attended with one good consequence— they had developed the character of the instigators, and shown how few they were in numbers; and hence, from their absolute insignificance, it became more imperiously the duty of that House to inter- fere for the rest of the country. The path they had to pursue was plain and simple. The petitioners implored from the House that redress of their grievances which the government had denied them. Let that House prove that such solicitations were not made in vain. Let them prove that they had other functions than merely to authorize the infliction of taxes; that they still possessed, and were prepared to exert, the loftier power of enforcing the constitution, of protecting the people, of stemming the corruptions of government, and of restoring the nation to its just rights and privileges, upon the principles consecrated by the Revolution.

Mr. Wynn

said, he did not wish to take up the time of the House with any observations upon parliamentary reform, a notice upon that subject had been given, and when it was regularly brought forward, and some distinct propositions submitted, then would be the time for entering into the discussion. He did not see, indeed, how any arguments could properly apply, before such propositions were presented, for the question of reform, generally, involved every topic, from annual parliaments and universal suffrage, down to the disfranchising a particular borough, against which gross and notorious corruption had been proved. Some allusions, however, had been made to the declaration of a noble lord, who stated, on a former night, the way in which he first came into parliament for the borough of Honiton; a statement which he heard, and he believed the whole House heard, with a disgust which it would be difficult to describe. He was aware, from the length of time that had elapsed, the noble lord was now exempt from the penalties he had incurred. But was that all? He should have thought that no member could have stood up in that House, and gloried in his misconduct —gloried in his violation of the privileges of that House, his violation of the liberties of the subject, and of the principles of the constitution. Could they have expected that the noble lord himself would now turn round, and reproach those whom he had seduced into that crime? For a crime it was against the constitution of the country. Another hon. member bad like-wise stated, that he was one of six who returned two members to parliament, those members paying each 4,500l. for their seats. He knew not what period had elapsed since that transaction; but that also was a great substantive offence, and he owned he could not understand upon what principle hon. members in that House ventured to boast of crimes against the constitution, and common law of the land.

Mr. Calvert

desired to explain. The hon. gentleman had totally misunderstood him. He had spoken as if he (Mr. C.) had been one of the persons who had, been engaged in the sale of the borough, and had participated in the profits. The fact was quite the reverse. It was he (Mr. C.) himself, who had been sold, before he gave his vote, and he did not know it. This was the most grievous circumstance that he had to complain of.

Mr. Wynn

admitted that he was entirely under a misunderstanding; although he did not conceive that the hon. gentleman had participated in the money. But the fact ought to be known, and he would have served his country most effectually by assisting in bringing the criminal to justice.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table.

Sir Francis Burdett presented a petition from Bradford, which being read by the clerk, was found to be exactly similar to those rejected by the House.

Lord Castlereagh

could not help regretting, that such petitions were manufactured by individuals in town, and signed by persons in the country, who appeared not to be aware of their nature. He felt it his duty, to move that this petition be rejected. It was impossible for the House to receive petitions containing such gross insults to its authority, and which he believed did not contain the real opinions of the people, but merely of those who drew them up.

Mr. Brougham

—I do not rise, Sir, with any intention whatever to put off that important discussion, which is the more immediate business of this evening, nor do I mean in any respect to oppose what has just fallen from the noble lord. I cannot, however, help saying, that I decidedly differ from the opinion he has laid down respecting manufactured petitions, and I shall shortly state why I do so. No man can hold in more abhorrence than I do the idea of petitions being systematically drawn up, and dispatched for signatures to different parts of the country. I would with much greater pleasure hear the plain statements of the petitioners themselves, although expressed in vulgar language, than hear those grievances of which they complain, stated in the finest sentences, or the most logical manner. We should thus be better enabled to decide what were the real sentiments of the people, than it is possible for us to be from such manufactured statements. Yet I warn the House not to believe, that because such petitions are thus drawn up, they do not contain the sense of the people. It does not follow, because two petitions are the same in language, that the persons signing those petitions are indifferent to, or not aware of, the real objects for which they petition. I have, Sir, spoken to individuals repeatedly, who attended public meetings for petitioning parliament, and have been told by them, that finding petitions prepared at these meetings, finding them, if I may use the expression, cut and dry, they have signed them. It would therefore be a monstrous proposition, to suppose that because half a million of the inhabitants of this country had signed petitions in exactly the same words, they were therefore insensible of the grievances under which the country was labouring, and were not desirous for a reform, and of a complete and radical retrenchment in the expenditure of the public money. This I particularly wish to impress on the attention of the House, and I call on any gentleman to show me a single instance, where one individual who has signed such petitions has ever come forward to deny his being aware of the nature of what was stated in these petitions.

Sir F. Burdett

was astonished that objections were taken to petitions without specifying the words objected to. The principal objection to this petition was its being manufactured in London, and sent to the country. It however was rather singular, that ministers never made similar objections when the petitions were in their favour; a pretty good instance of which was seen in the petition lately handed about by the merchants, bankers, and traders of London, and which without, doubt was manufactured in a corner. It was well known, that at all public meetings, petitions and resolutions were always' prepared before hand, in consequence of its being understood, that the general principles on which such meetings were convened were agreed on. The people now felt their grievances, and it was, therefore, not prudent to check them on a mere criticism of words. He saw no words in the present petition which could warrant its being rejected, there was no proof whatever of any intention on the part of the petitioners to offend the House, and when such was the case, it certainly was the duty of the House not to reject the petition.

The petition was rejected.