HC Deb 25 February 1817 vol 35 cc643-54
Sir F. Burdett

rose for the purpose of presenting a petition which had been agreed to at a numerous meeting of the inhabitants of Westminster, held this day in Palace-yard, against the Bill for the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. He trusted that if time were given, petitions to the same effect would be presented from every part of the kingdom; and he took that opportunity to protest against the indecent and illegal way in which it was intended to pass this measure through the House. When it was considered that three months had elapsed since the time when this conspiracy was said to have been discovered; that it was three weeks since the committee had been appointed to inquire into these plots, it would surely be allowed that there was no sufficient reason for hurrying such a bill through the House in one or two days. He wished the House to understand that the petitioners equally disapproved of the other measures embraced in the little despotic code which the noble lord had last night brought before the House, although they had finally fixed their eye on that part of it which related to the suspension of the most distinctive and best rights of Englishmen. — He moved that the petition be brought up.

Lord Cochrane

said that, with respect to order and propriety, nothing could exceed what had been manifested at the Westminster meeting that day;—the conduct of the inhabitants of Westminster was on that occasion every way unimpeachable, and he had never witnessed any meeting of the citizens of Westminster which was not conducted with regularity and propriety. With regard to the subject of the petition, he must say, that out of the House there was no diversity of opinion as to the intention of a measure originating in that feeling which was attempted to be excited by his majesty's ministers —a feeling, however, which would not influence the people. He hoped and trusted the measure would fail in producing that effect which his majesty's ministers anticipated, namely, the preventing the people from giving free expression to their sentiments. If any thing more than an other would induce the people to express themselves in the strongest manner, it was a suspension like this, founded on a report, without the slightest evidence to support its statements; for in all former cases some evidence had been stated—the two last reports he believed were accompanied by some evidence. Being denied every access to the evidence laid before the committee, he did not see how the House could come to any decision on it. Without imputing any undue influence or any interested motives to the members of the committee (and he was sorry to say, the public mind was impressed with such an unfavourable idea), he hoped he might say thus much without any impropriety, that all men were capable of being deceived by ex-parte evidence. And when he knew that this ex-parte evidence was put into the green bag by those very persons who were interested in creating the alarm, by those who were interested in the continuance of all existing abuses, in opposing all retrenchment, and the reform of all that corrupt influence whereby members were returned to that House, lie thought it could not be too much distrusted; and he was convinced he was not going too far, when he said, that the opinion excited by the report without the walls of the House, was not favourable to the decision of the committee. He, for his part, knew of no individuals desirous of subverting any part of the constitution of the country. Whether the Suspension Bill passed or not, was a matter of indifference to him: he should never abstain from going into any meetings or societies whenever he thought proper to do so. He was not a member of the Union Club, and though he was a member of the Hampden Club, he had only attended it once, when there were only three members present. But he should never abstain from going to any of those meetings: he should go to meet any number of his constituents at any time without being deterred by the fear of dungeons or chains, whether the bill passed or not. He had said recently in the House, that the people had no recourse but to refuse to pay taxes. This sentiment had met with the displeasure of the House; but when he saw on the records of the House, in what he was entitled to say were better times than the present, that the members had often felt it their duty when they opposed the measures attempted by ministers, to do so by withholding all supplies; and when he saw, that in our times the House had relinquished that salutary practice, he did not think there was any impropriety in stating, that the House having relinquished the power of withholding supplies, it had reverted to those by whom they were delegated. He entreated the House to pause before they proceeded to make a change in the constitution, greater far than that which they imputed to reformers: for no change in the constitution could be greater than a suspension of the liberties of the country, without any argument to prove the necessity of it. Whether the period of the suspension was long or short—whether it was merely intended to produce an alarm of such a kind as to induce men to rally round his majesty's ministers, though they might not intend to act on the suspension, he should hold it to be his duty, on every occasion, to enter his protest against so mad, and so wicked a measure.

Mr. Long Wellesley

said, that he had never found one person of respectability in the country, who was not impressed with the danger to the constitution, from the mischievous principles so industriously disseminated among the working classes at the present moment. He had a pretty extensive circle of acquaintance, and he knew no person who did not entertain this opinion. He believed, that if the sense of the country were to be taken on the necessity of a suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, the petitions alluded to by the hon. baronet, would be met by counter petitions from nearly the whole of the more respectable part of society.

Sir F. Burdett

said, that if, according to the hon. gentleman, there was but one sentiment entertained by the gentlemen of England on the subject which now occupied the attention of the House, he trusted they would meet, that parliament might know it. He should always bow to the decision of the majority of the people of England, however different their sentiments might be from his own. What he complained of was the attempt to suppress the voice of the people. He was astonished that those gentlemen who, from their rank and possessions, were most deeply interested in the prosperity and well-being of the country—those who used formerly to excite a feeling of patriotism in the country up to a very late period indeed, and who guided by their great judgment, their dignified conduct, and their talents, a people who were always anxious to listen to them and to bow to their opinion, even when their reason was not altogether convinced, should have estranged themselves from the people as they had lately done. He was sorry to see the change which had taken place. This country seemed now to be in a situation resembling that of so many countries on the continent. He need only allude to Spain, where it was very remarkable that those persons who had the greatest possessions and the greatest interest and stake in the country, as we called it, in all the great struggles seemed to have acted like the gentlemen of England, to have stood by and allowed others to fight, and to have obeyed every party which had the mastery for the time. The sentiments of a gentleman of the consequence of the hon. member must have much weight with the gentlemen of the country, and he trusted and hoped that it only required this to set them in motion, and to induce them to act in a more manly and liberal manner than they had lately done.

Mr. Robinson

asked the hon. baronet how he could possibly think of comparing the gentlemen of this country with those of Spain, as if they were alike in any respect whatever? That the gentlemen of England would sit still and see their country fought for by others, was what he had never heard before, and what he believed to be utterly unfounded. When they were called on to fight, they would always be found in the front of their countrymen. The hon. baronet regretted that all those bonds of union which formerly united them with the people were now broken; but this was a very unfair representation of the case; for if in any part those ties were broken, it was in those parts of the country alone to which the measures referred, and they had not been broken by the gentlemen, but by those who had an interest in breaking all bonds whatever, and in introducing disorder and confusion. He was astonished that the hon. baronet, a gentleman of great possessions and of an ancient family, extensively connected as he was in the country, and beloved, he had no doubt, by all who were connected with him, should express himself in the manner he had done. Why should he suppose that others were not equally beloved by those connected with them? Why should he suppose them indifferent to the wishes and feelings of those below them? Why should he give this picture of the gentlemen of England? Why should he hold them up in such an invidious light, merely because they thought it necessary to entrust extraordinary powers to government to enable them to arrest the machinations of those who were engaged in measures to subvert the constitution and government of the country [Hear, hear!]?

Sir Gilbert Heathcote

denied that his hon. friend had accused the gentlemen of England of detaching themselves from the body of the people. He had only lamented their supineness, and brought no charge of any other kind. He had expressed his desire to see them cordially join, and wisely guide the sentiments and feelings of those over whom their rank and property gave them a natural influence; and he regretted that the legitimate direction which superior information and improved judgment would give them was not claimed or exercised.

The petition was then read, setting forth,

"That the petitioners have been taught to consider the Habeas Corpus act as one of the principal bulwarks of the people's liberties; that they have learned with regret and surprise, that a bill is to be introduced into the House, for the purpose of suspending this important act, and thereby of leaving every person in the kingdom at the mercy of the ministers of the crown; that Magna Charta declares, that justice shall neither be delayed nor denied to any one; and yet, if this act be suspended, and his majesty's ministers be allowed to apprehend and detain in custody whomsoever they please, without being obliged to bring them to a speedy trial, justice, in the opinion of the petitioners, will be both delayed and denied; that they have observed, on former occasions, that many persons were apprehended without any specific crime being charged upon them; that none of those persons were ever brought to trial, nor any bill ever preferred against any of them; but that, after being imprisoned nearly three years, they were discharged from prison without recognizance, without compensation for the injury sustained, and without any means of redress; that a power so enormous ought not to be placed in the hands of any minister, but upon the most urgent necessity, and upon the clearest evidence in times of the utmost danger; that, on every former occasion when the Habeas Corpus act was suspended, the country was involved in war, in some instances to defend the legal succession to the crown, and in others, as was then alleged, to prevent the overthrow of the constitution through the assistance of foreign enemies; that at present none of these reasons exist, nor are the petitioners aware of any acts of atrocity having been committed which the law, as it at present stands, cannot reach; the petitioners therefore pray, that the House will not allow any bill to abridge the liberties of the people of England to pass into a law, without calling evidence to the bar of the House to prove the allegations on which a demand is made on the House to deprive them of the rights guaranteed to them by Magna Charta, and of that other most important right, Trial by Jury."

On the motion, that the petition do lie on the table,

Mr. Gurney

said, he totally differed from the hon. baronet, believing the opinion of the great majority to be in favour of the temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus; the country calling on the House for some measures to preserve them from this perpetual agitation, and from the horrible domination of self-constituted societies—that the hon. baronet had at last discovered his real affections towards the liberties of the people—that he had at last avowed when that House should have been brought into utter contempt by way of clearing the ground for annual parliaments—when, as must of necessity be, the first moments of tumult having subsided, he whole power of the state had fallen into the hands of the crown. His counsel to the crown would be, to revert to the vigorous measures of the days of Elizabeth when counselled by Cecil and Walsingham—to check the offciousness of volunteer advisers—by driving a cleaver through their wrists with a mallet in Palace-yard—and to keep peace in the city, by hanging boys for throwing stones at the parish constables.— Mr. Gurney said, that he considered the proposed measure, as a measure of mercy, as it went to lodge a preventive power in the hands of government, which in those of the noble lord at present at the head of the home department, he was confident would not be abused; in the place of visiting committed action with severe, and perhaps in many instances with morally unmerited punishment. He, however, trusted that ministers would never revive the act of the 36th of Geo. fid, without expunging those atrocious clauses which rendered life the forfeiture for what in their nature were comparatively slender misdemeanors.

Sir F. Burdett

observed, that the hon. member had totally mistaken what had been said by him. That hon. member seemed to have great hope and great faith —great hope that the Habeas Corpus act would be suspended, in which it was very probable that he would be gratified, and great faith when he believed it was the wish of the people that such a measure should take place. What was the sentiment of the people of England must be matter of opinion, and when a member expressed a conviction that the people of England were in favour of the proposed measure, there were no means of contradicting him, but by the assertion of a contrary opinion. He should only hint at what had been said by a member who had before spoken, that if the sentiments of the gentlemen of England were expressed, they would be very different from that of the petition which he had then presented. He did not know how this might be, but he wished to see them come forward on these questions. He had referred to the nobility of Spain, not that he thought the gentlemen of England were reduced so low as that degraded nobility, but because there was not much less appearance of apathy among the gentry here during the present crisis, than had been shown by the nobility in Spain during its struggle with France. He should maintain that this apathy existed, unless any one could show county meetings, that a part had been actually taken on the one side or the other by the gentry in different parts of the kingdom. He wished fee the gentry not coming forward distinctly from the people, but with the people; for at a moment so critical, it would be most desirable to take the sense of the whole nation on its difficulties. In these meetings he did not wish to see any distinction made amongst different classes—he did not wish to hear any persons called the degraded classes, as the noble lord opposite had called them on a former night. He knew of no degraded class, unless, indeed, the sinecurists, who took salaries without any service in return to the public. These distinctions had the very effect which the reformers had been accused of producing —that of stirring up the poor against the rich. He wished to see all classes united in defence of the constitution, which they had an equal interest to defend, and that the poor man should not look upon himself as inferior to his neighbour, because he was richer than himself. The effect of this classification of the people was mischievous. The poor were taught to consider that burthens imposed on the rich were not injurious to them, and that the taxes on articles of consumption, such as leather and soap, were alone injurious to them. As if the labouring man did not receive from his employer an equivalent for those taxes, and as if the reward for labour were not always the quantity of food and raiment which the labour was worth, which was regulated by the demand arising from the fund left in the rich man's pocket. It was from this wealth, as from a bank, that the poor drew in return for their supplying the wants of the wealthy, and of course they had the same interest with the rich in desiring an alleviation of the taxes which fell upon their employers. As all ranks had one common interest, he wished to see them all united, to attempt to remedy the multiplied grievances which bad been brought upon them by a long course of false and mischievous policy. Each in his sphere should exert himself to the utmost, as it was hardly possible that even the united efforts of all could for the present do more than alleviate those evils.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that in the former debate, which was referred to, he had never made use of the word "degraded" as applied to any class of the people of England. He had drawn a consolatory reflection from the fact, that the treason did hot extend to the educated classes, but was confined to the suffering part of the people. He thence inferred that it would terminate without bad consequences; and it was to the treason itself, and the persons implicated in it, that, if at all, he had applied the word "degraded."

Mr. Somers Cocks

thought it could not be doubted that there was at this time a bad public spirit amongst individuals, who were anxious to take advantage of the general distress, and turn these meetings to their private and disaffected views. No man was more anxious than himself to support the liberties of his country; but he did not conceive it justifiable to take advantage of our momentary difficulties to assemble and make harangues to the multitude. In all countries and at all times there had been distress; but the times of distress formed the harvest of the disaffected. He lamented as much as any one the calamity that now afflicted the people, but to assemble at public meetings, and at such a time, to inflame the minds of the populace was a mode of conduct that roust meet with the reprobation of all who were entitled to the description of the gentlemen of the country.

Mr. Ponsonby

would have remained silent on the present occasion, had he not been called upon to make a reply to an observation that had fallen from a noble lord (Cochrane). That noble lord had called the report of the secret committee a libel on the people of England; what the noble lord meant by the word "libel," he could not take upon himself to say; but if he meant that in that report bad conduct or mischievous designs were attributed to the people of England, he was ready to give such a charge a flat denial. The report praised the principles, the temper, the conduct of the people generally. It was obliged to confess, that in some parts acts had been committed or principles encouraged, of which it disapproved; but so far from accusing the people generally of them, it excused even the offenders, on the ground that they were acted upon by designing men, who took advantage of their distress to mislead and delude them. The noble lord, not contented with abusing the report, attributed no very honourable motives to those who sanctioned it in the committee. He accused them of prejudices, biasses, partialities, and of acting under undue influence. Now, as a member of that committee, he would ask the noble lord, what undue partiality he could attribute to him? It was not a partiality surely to his majesty's ministers—he generally opposed them. It could not be a partiality to the measures of which the report was made the grounds work—he had expressed his protest against them. It could not be a partiality proceeding from interest—if he had any interest, it was on the other side. His interest led him to please the people. He could assure the noble lord, that neither interest, partiality, or prejudice, had been the motives of his conduct; that he acted entirely from a sense of duty, and the deliberate conviction of his own mind; and that whenever he felt that sense of duty, he would regulate his conduct by its dictates, whether he acquired popularity or not by the course he pursued.

Lord Folkestone

thought his right hon. friend had mistaken the noble lord, (Cochrane) when he supposed he accused; the members of the committee of partiality and prejudice. As to the other assertion of the noble lord, that the report was a libel on the people of England, he agreed that by inference it was a libel upon the people. What were the measures founded upon that report? A suspension of the Habeas Corpus, extending to the whole people of England, and a Gagging Bill equally extensive. If these measures arose out of that Report, did it not cast an imputation on the people of England by no means justified by fact? The hon. baronet, his worthy friend below him, had been misunderstood and misrepresented. What the hon. baronet had said had arisen from the wish expressed by an hon. member, to see the gentlemen of the country come forward on the subject. The hon. baronet though he differed as to what were probably the sentiments of the gentry, concurred in this wish, and lamented that gentlemen, who, by their learning and knowledge, were able to direct the people, did not attend. What could be better calculated than this to prevent that inflammation of the public mind which an hon. member had imagined public meetings were likely to produce?

Mr. Law

said, that the reasoning of the noble lord who had preceded him was of the most extraordinary kind. He had called the report a libel by inference on the people of England, and his inference was thus deduced—that measures affecting the whole people of England had been adopted in consequence of the Report. The Report, however, took especial care to except all the higher, almost all the middle, and all the agricultural classes from the charges which it made against some individuals. The Report suggested, that in consequence of the diseased state of the public mind, attempts were made to create disturbances among certain classes of the community, which it was necessary to counteract by legislative measures. Now, what measures could be devised, by all the noble lord's ingenuity, which should extend only to one class of the community? How could he distinguish the classes that were tainted from those who were not corrupted? A law might be confined to counties or hundreds, but if the noble lord proposed a law extending to the manufacturing class, or any other class exclusively, all his eloquence would fail to induce the House to adopt it.

Mr. Brougham

said, his mind had been much relieved by the construction affixed to the Report, by the hon. gentleman, for he took it for granted that the hon. gentleman would not have stood forward as a champion of the Report, without having read it. The House was now told that by "few, if any" was to be understood none. They were now absolutely told that none of the higher, none of the middle, none of the agricultural classes, were engaged in the disloyal associations, though the Report said, that few, if any of these classes were concerned. A new construction had thus been fixed upon words, which certainly in themselves were not sufficiently definite. He (Mr. Brougham) did not consider the Report a libel on the people of England, though it contained misrepresentations, and language highly exceptionable. But the measures proposed on it were not a libel—not a bill of indictment—but a sentence, and a most severe sentence against all the people of England. The people were not put upon their trial for offences, of which indeed they were acquitted; but every man among a people who had borne with such perseverance, tranquillity—nay, even decorum, sufferings, he firmly believed wholly without example in that country, was to be placed under an arbitrary power.—It was easy for them, in that House, night after night, to "hope, and trust, and expect," that the people would bear their privations peaceably. Not one man in that House had ever known or witnessed in his friends or scarcely seen or heard of, but from works of imagination, what the real pressure of hunger was. When under that dreadful pressure, the people had behaved so peaceably and decorously, he must say, that there could be no injustice, no hardship, so flagitious as, on such a report as he had last night adverted to, to pass sentence on the nation to deprive it of the blessings of the constitution.

Mr. W. Elliot

thought the report could not be declared a libel on the whole people of England. It said the great body of the nation was sound. What it said was not that the whole nation was infected, but that practices existed calculated to shake the foundation of social order.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table,