HC Deb 01 February 1821 vol 4 cc288-98
Sir John Newport

observed, that in pursuance of the notice which he had given, he had now to bring under the consideration of the House what appeared to him a manifest and flagrant breach of those privileges which had been established, not for the benefit and protection of the House alone, but for those whom they represented. Instead of complaining at once, as he should have been justified in doing in such a case, he had given notice of His intention, in order to enable the parties to offer the best explanation in their power. The attack came from a quarter where it could hardly have been anticipated—it was made by persons in a respectable station of life, and, what was more singular, had received the marked approbation of his majesty's ministers. He was induced to call the attention of the House to it, because its tendency was, to embarrass and impair that freedom of speech by which they were entitled to discuss every public question without comment or censure, unless within those walls, and which had always been deemed one of their most valuable privileges. The members of that House had a right to deliver their sentiments without any reference to the approbation or censure of other persons. He could not so well express this principle as in the emphatic words of a declaration framed in that House by very eminent men, on the 3rd of May, 1810. [Here the right hon. baronet read the declaration alluded to.] The libel in question purported to to have been laid before the Crown, and was promulgated in the London Gazette on the 2nd of January last. It was headed by these words:—"The following address was presented to his majesty, who was pleased to receive it very graciously." Now, when the House should hear of what the address consisted, it would be of opinion, he conceived, that it was impossible the address could have been so communicated and received. He was sure, that the sovereign had been too carefully instructed in the principles of the constitution, to approve of any attack upon those who had made such remarks in the discussion of a public question as were suggested to them by the exercise of their parliamentary duty. If an impropriety was committed by any hon. member, it was for the House itself, through the Chair, to animadvert upon it, and he felt confident, that this duty would never be neglected; but it did not belong to any body of men, and the present addressers were an ecclesiastical body, who would be much better employed in their professional vocations than in denouncing the conduct of persons in parliament—it did not belong to them to stigmatize and condemn the speeches made in that House, as violent, unconstitutional, and productive of disaffection. He was sure, no one would contend, that language of this kind could be addressed to them from the throne; and the question was, whether it ought to receive the royal sanction when applied in this indirect manner. It was unnecessary to trouble the House at any length upon a case which appeared to leave no room for doubt or difference of opinion; it was sufficient to say, that perfect freedom of speech was their ancient undoubted right—one which they had enjoyed uninterruptedly, and which was essential to their existence as a distinct branch of the legislature. With regard to the publication of this address, in the London Gazette, it had been stated, a few nights since, that a power of selection was exercised, and it was justified, on the ground, that his majesty's ministers could not be expected to publish, as having been graciously received, addresses which reflected upon themselves, and that no addresses ever did appear in the Gazette but such as were graciously received. But, according to this principle, they might publish reflections on all other persons, and give the sanction of the royal authority to any censure directed against their opponents. He doubted not, that the House, when the composition to which he referred should be read, would agree in the justness of the observations which he had taken the liberty to submit. The right hon. baronet then proceeded to read the address, and point out the libellous matter. The address was one to the king from the presbytery of Langholme, in the county of Dumfries, and was published in the London Gazette of the 2nd of January last; it had been voted on the 19th of December in the preceding year, and was signed "W. B. Shaw, Moderator:"

"We have witnessed, with much concern, and we strongly deprecate, the spirit of disaffection lately become so prevalent, from what we would term the violent and unconstitutional speeches of the opposition in both Houses of Parliament [hear, hear], and the infamous scurrility and misrepresentation of a licentious press.

"As teachers of religion, we deplore the infidel sentiments that are sedulously disseminated, and that have contributed, more than any other cause, to excite the feelings which have of late been but too openly manifested; for it must be evident, that when men renounce their allegiance to God, they will also betray their king and country: and would not those to whom we allude rejoice to overturn the altar, the throne, and the constitution, when they scoff at religion, insult their king, and bring*such railing accusations against the men, who under an all-wise and over-ruling Providence, and supported by your majesty, have saved their country, and in whom, we will venture to say, the good sense of the nation still confides? [Hear, and laughter.]

"With every good citizen and loyal subject, we reprobate the address and petition of the Common Council of the city of London [laughter], than which a greater insult could not be offered to majesty, and which, it behoves all who wish well to their king and country publicly to condemn; nor can we refrain from reprehending severely, the insolence of certain members of the opposition upon the late prorogation of parliament [Hear, and laughter]; for if such conduct in the representatives of the people pass unnoticed, what may be expected from the' people themselves?"

The right hon. baronet then handed the Gazette to the clerk, who read the above passages, which having been done, the right hon. baronet moved—"That the dutiful and loyal address of the Presbyteries of Langholme, in the county of Dumfries, which was published in the London Gazette of 2nd January last, contains passages in manifest breach of the essential privileges of this House of Parliament."

Lord Castlereagh

said, that what the right hon. baronet had stated to the House went to the form and not to the substance of the case. He did not object to the paper generally, but to certain passages that were contained in it; because there were many parts of that address against which no complaint could possibly be made. His motion, therefore, went rather to the condemnation of particular passages, than to the disapproval of the publication entirely. He hoped, that the right hon. baronet would believe him, when he said, that he would be the last person to show any indifference to the privileges of the House—that he would be the last person to counsel the House not to maintain its privileges, whenever any act was done, with reference to them, which could not be justified, and which was brought under their consideration in the shape of libel. It was extremely difficult for any person who considered the importance of their privileges—not only to the members of that House, but to the general interests of the people—to slate any excuse for an infringement of those privileges, when the subject was regularly brought forward. But it was a fit matter for consideration, whether, under all the circumstances of any particular case, it was desirable for the House to exert its undoubted authority. Let gentlemen for a moment reflect on the various libels that were at present abroad in the country. If the House took up every thing that fairly fell under the description of a libel on parliament generally, as well as on particular members of the legislature, the whole of their time would be passed in reviewing those publications, instead of doing their duty to the public. He did not urge this argument invidiously towards the right hon. baronet; because he was quite sure, that no individual would suggest or adopt a more liberal view of what was best to be done for the House and the country, on such an occasion, than the right hon. baronet. What, therefore, he meant to do was, to put it to the feelings of the right hon. baronet, whether he had not fully performed his duty to the House and the country, by calling the attention of the House to this publication, without adopting any farther proceeding. He was the more disposed to urge this on the consideration of the right hon. baronet, because, without taking away from the fair weight of his observations, it appeared to him, that the right hon. baronet had not given sufficient importance to those circumstances which might be alleged in extenuation of the offence complained of. He supposed, from what had fallen from the right hon. baronet, that he was not in the House when this subject was mentioned by a noble lord (Folkestone) on the first night of the session, at which time, a full explanation was given of the circumstances by his right hon. friend (Mr. Bathurst); who had, in the course of his speech, avowed, as a member of the government, that the secretary of state was in the habit of selecting addresses for publication in the Gazette, to the exclusion of others, which did not come within the principle by which he was guided in making the selection. If the right hon. baronet, really was present on that occasion, he must have heard his right hon. friend state, in addition to this, that the publication of the address in question occurred entirely through inadvertence. The House would, perhaps, allow him to call to their recollection, that the system of selection had been the uniform practice, not only of the present, but of all administrations. It was a practice founded on good sense and reason; because the king's Gazette ought not to-be made the channel to convey insult to the throne, and abuse to the constituted authorities of the country. He would bring the present case exactly within that practice; and he would say, that no unjustifiable doctrines should have found their way into the Gazette. But, if that address were unfit to appear in the Gazette, surely it was, à fortiori, more unfit, that that publication should be made the vehicle for disseminating insults of a more flagrant nature, contained in addresses, petitions, and other documents, which were very liberally circulated at the present moment. When his right hon. friend, on a former evening, stated what was the practice at the Secretary of state's office, he, at the same time, expressed the regret of the secretary of the home department that the document complained of should have found its way into the king's Gazette. So far was the occurrence from being justified or sanctioned by the ministers of the Crown, that they extremely regretted its publication; and if they had exercised the power of selection, so far from causing it to be inserted, they would have considered it as coming under one of those descriptions of address which ought not to be published. The right hon. baronet, when he quoted the observation of his right hon. friend with respect to the selection of addresses, forgot to add, that his right hon. friend also stated, that though this address came from very respectable persons, it was not sanctioned by government, who, on the contrary, protested against some of the sentiments contained in it. Though it was in fact published when sent up by this respectable presbytery to the noble lord, and laid at the foot of the throne, still the circum- stance of its publication could only be considered as a matter of inadvertence. Had it not been so published, it would never have attracted any notice, or called forth any particular expression of feeling. In short, it never would have been mentioned. And this being the true state of the case—it appearing, that the publication was the effect of inadvertence—the right hon. baronet would perhaps feel, that having called the attention of the House to the subject, enough had been done. It would have been a different thing if it were found not to have been an inadvertent act; but since all intention to sanction the objectionable parts of the address was disavowed, the right hon. baronet might perhaps be inclined to think, that, considering the different circumstances, it was not a case in which the privileges of the House called for any farther proceeding. He would submit to the right hon. baronet, whether he did not now seem to be taking up rather a narrower line, with respect to freedom of discussion in the country, than ought to be adopted. Though it was the last species of warfare in which he should wish to be engaged, yet it would, he thought, be most unjust if one side of the House was to be excluded from the attacks of calumny, while individuals on the other 6ide—however patient in their nature—were to he quietly on their backs, and bear every species of contumely without complaining. But though, perhaps, it would be convenient to gentlemen on his side of the House, and to himself individually—who no longer ago than the night before last was mentioned by name in a petition laid on their table—if matters of this kind were attended to (and he knew if he pursued such a course he should pursue it under a very high sanction, since it was approved of by the right hon. baronet), still he did not think, that it would do either side of the House any good in the eyes of their constituents, if they took up this question, and said, that the speeches and. the public conduct of members of parliament should not be animadverted on out of doors, if the observations made use of exceeded the bounds of fair and temperate discussion. The mere circumstance of their conniving at the publication of their debates—a practice which was contrary to their standing orders, but which, if not a part of the constitution, was almost essential to it—rendered it impossible to prevent free animadversion. When their debates were sent out all over the country, could it be expected, that observations would not be made as to what the character of parliament collectively was, as well as with reference to the conduct of any particular members of that body? They could not expect, that their proceedings won Id always be spoken of in terms of approbation, and never in those of disapprobation. It would be a little too much if the gentlemen of the opposition were to propose, that they should be recognised as that sacred body in the constitution who could not by possibility be assailed with reproach—who were not open to any possible suspicion or imputation of not acting on all occasions for the general benefit of the country. The right hon. baronet undoubtedly found in this address very strong observations on the conduct of the opposition; but he could not avoid saying, that the right hon. baronet did not read the address in a fair manner, He treated it as if all the evils of the present day were ascribed to the conduct of the opposition. But the fact was, the inflamed state of the public mind was attributed to three causes—whether well or ill founded he would not stop to inquire. They were, first, the speeches of opposition; secondly, blasphemous and seditious publications; and lastly, the petition that emanated from the Common Council of the city of London. If they were to call the learned body who sanctioned the address to the bar, he did not conceive, that it would produce any good practical result. And here he must observe, that it was too much for the right hon. baronet to say, because those individuals were pastors, that therefore they should lay down all public functions, and abstain from offering any opinion on what was passing, with respect to the peace and tranquility of the country; and more especially on the prevalence of infidelity. If the right hon. baronet laid it down as a principle of the House, that all publications of this nature ought to be brought under their consideration, he (Lord C.) would not have far to go, in order to produce, to-morrow, to the right hon. baronet, two or three specimens of addresses, in which he himself, the minister of the Crown, and those members of parliament who supported them, were charged with motives the most base, corruption the most notorious, the greatest abandonment of their public duty, and the most flagrant crimes against the interests of the country. He should only offer what he conceived to be a very fair contre-projet to the motion of the right hon. baronet, when he brought forward, in answer to his charge, a series of libels against tile whole body of the administration. If there were to be in the House—one protected set of men, it was not unreasonable, he hoped, for him and his friends to aspire to an equal degree of protection. He thought, however, the best way would be to drop the business. The intention of sanctioning some of the expressions contained to the address having been publicly and promptly disavowed—so much unfeigned regret having been expressed at its having appeared in the Gazette—and as, in the course of many years, this was the first instance in which any thing objectionable had appeared in that publication—these circumstances would, perhaps, induce the right hon. baronet not to press his motion. His right hon. friend did not come tardily forward, but gave the necessary disavowal on the very first day of the session. The right hon. baronet had brought the subject very properly before the House; but, having done so, he would perhaps feel, that he would best perform his duty by letting the question rest, as no attempt had been made to justify the publication.

Mr. Scarlett

said, he would not have troubled the House with any observations on this occasion, if it had not been for what had fallen from the noble lord. He had very ingenuously put forward as the offender in this case, the unhappy Moderator who signed the address. That individual might be a very respectable person; and if it had been with him, that the selection of the address for publication had rested, the subject would, perhaps, have been unworthy of being brought before the House; but what gave a sting to this address was, that it found its way into the Gazette, a publication, under the immediate sanction of administration, and was stated to have been most graciously received by the Crown, One of the most important parts of the constitution of the House of Commons was, that the influence of his majesty's name, or the knowledge of his opinion, should have no effect in guiding their decisions; and for any man to state to his majesty any part of the debates of that House, and much more to characterize them, was highly unconstitutional. If there could be a greater breach of privilege than this, it was, that a minister of the Crown publicly stated the address so characterizing the debates to have been most graciously received. The noble lord (Sidmouth) had desired an apology to be made for the occurrence; he had caused it to be stated, that he was sorry it had taken place. If this sort of apology were to justify the House in passing overa breach of privilege of this nature, he knew not why they should not pass over any other breach of privilege, provided an apology was tendered. He admitted the good sense of some of the noble lord's observations. He agreed with him when he said, that they ought not to watch over their privileges with so much severity as to prevent the people from animadverting on the proceedings of the House; because, between the members of that House and those whom they represented, there should be a free communication of sentiment, and the press was the best medium for keeping up that communication. In this instance, the act complained of was not committed by any portion of their constituents, but by a minister of the Crown, and therefore it was the more important that it should not be passed over in silence. They all knew, that many instances had occurred of late years where the House visited, perhaps with too much severity, animadversions on their proceedings which assumed a popular character; and he conceived it was not acting equitably to refrain from exercising the authority which was vested in them against the Crown, and on all occasions to enforce it against the people. If it were an attack on an individual member, it would be well for him to exercise a sound discretion, before he determined to submit a complaint to the House; but it was no such thing. It was a general attack on those who were designated as an "Opposition." Did his majesty know of an opposition in that House? Did ministers state to his majesty, that there were a body of men in parliament who made "violent and unconstitutional speeches?" If that were known—if the fact could be brought forward, and satisfactorily proved, it would be matter of impeachment rather than breach of privilege. He did not think the matter could be thus passed over. The apology would be soon forgotten, but the address would still remain on the pages of the Gazette. If the noble lord would point out some means by which the apology could be placed on the Journals of the House, he would be satisfied: but he could not suffer the business to drop, as the noble lord had suggested. They were placed in this situation—an attack had been made in the Gazette on the speeches of members of that House, and all the satisfaction they received was, a declaration, that ministers were sorry for it. But they might do the same thing to-morrow, if some efficient step were not resorted to, and again make the same declaration of regret. Were they to abandon the matter altogether, because a minister offered an apology, and acknowledged, that the proceeding was wrong? He hoped, it would not be thought, that he meant to press the business invidiously against any individual. If the motion would have the effect of bringing this gentleman up to town from Scotland, he should be sorry for it; because he appeared to him to be a very ignorant man. Certainly he knew very little of what passed in that House. The sting was not in the paper which the reverend gentleman had signed, but in the use that had been made of it, and the sanction it appeared to have received from his majesty's government. Under these circumstances, he submitted, that the right hon. baronet could not withdraw his proposition, unless some means were devised to express the sense of the House on the subject.

Mr. Bathurst

said, that the publication of the address arose entirely from inadvertence, and as soon as possible an apology was made for inserting it in the Gazette. The right hon. baronet should, injustice, have quoted the latter part of his (Mr. B's) speech on the first night of the session. He then stated, that the address appeared merely through inadvertence, and without the sanction of his majesty's ministers On the ground of the circumstance having been occasioned by inadvertence, and on that ground alone, he conceived the House ought to pass it over.

Sir J. Newport

assured the right hon. gentleman, that the noise which prevailed on the night he alluded to, was so great as to prevent him from hearing the whole of his explanation. Perhaps an entry to the following effect would meet the wishes of his learned friend:—After stating the paper to contain a breach of privilege, it might be added, "And it having been stated to the House, on the part of the secretary of state for the home department, that the paper was considered by him to be reprehensible, and that it got into the Gazette by mistake, it does not appear, that the House proceeded further, except to place this disavowal on their journals."

Lord Castlereagh

suggested, that the debate should be adjourned till to-morrow, in order to give the right hon. baronet an opportunity to adopt a proper form of words.

Mr. Gordon

observed, that it ought to be recollected, that the insertion of the address in the Gazette was not the only mischief. It had thence been copied in to the country papers, so that the people at large were induced to believe, that the sentiments which it contained, had been graciously received by his majesty. He was the last man to think of visiting, with severe punishment, any carsasms such as those in question; but, when the gentlemen opposite seemed disposed to exercise, to their extent, all the privileges of the Crown, it was necessary to provide an adequate counteraction by the firm maintenance of the privileges of that House.

The debate was then adjourned to to-morrow.