HC Deb 14 June 1822 vol 7 cc1078-92
Mr. Honywood

rose to present a petition from the county of Kent, complaining of Agricultural Distress, and praying for Parliamentary Reform. There was a concluding paragraph tacked to it, the introduction of which no man regretted more sincerely than himself; he meant that rider which called upon parliament to make a reduction in the interest of the national debt, as soon as that House should have reformed itself. Had government, two years ago, adopted that economy and retrenchment so loudly called for by the distresses of the country, they would never have heard such a sentiment from the freeholders of Kent.

Sir E. Knatchbull

admitted, that the meeting was numerous and highly respectable. The meeting was convened for the purpose of considering the distressed state of the country, and the expediency of parliamentary reform. The meeting took place, and very little was said about agricultural distress, but a great deal about reform. Every thing went on peaceably, until a gentleman (he supposed he must call him so, for he said he was a freeholder) thought fit to propose the rider alluded to. In his opinion, it was the lamest rider a Whig horse ever had to carry. When the clause was proposed to the meeting, a considerable pause, as if of astonishment, ensued. Sadie time elapsed before any body had the confidence to second the motion. At last an individual seconded it. During the whole of the time, the great Whig leaders who had called the meeting were silent land expressed no opinion with respect to the clause. A noble lord (Darnley) opposed the rider, as recommending a breach of public faith, and no doubt With a feeling of strong repugnance at seeing the aristocracy of the county dictated to by such a character as Cobbett. Had his honourable colleague and the noble lord called upon the meeting to oppose that rider, they would have vindicated the high, character and unblemished honour which the county of Kent had ever maintained. The person who moved the rider had stated, that the main object of parliamentary reform was, a reduction of the interest of the national debt. If that was so, his objections to parliamentary reform were strengthened and confirmed. He was perfectly persuaded that this disgraceful rider would never have been adopted, if the Whig- leaders had expressed their dislike to it as strongly as his hon. colleague had now done. He protested against this amendment being considered as the expression of the opinion of the freeholders. Whatever might be their opinion with respect to parliamentary reform, nine-tenths of them would have rejected a proposition for breaking faith with the public creditor. He protested, therefore, against this part of the petition in the name of his constituents, and he had the authority of his hon. colleague for protesting against it on behalf of the Whig leaders of the county.

Mr. Honywood

said, that this petition did not emanate merely from the Whig leaders. The requisition had been signed by a number of persons who had never called themselves Whigs, and who were once the enemies of reform. With respect to the rider, be had opposed it at the time, and he utterly disavowed the sentiment it contained.

Lord J. Russell

could not help expressing his surprise, that if, as the hon. baronet stated, so large a majority of the meeting were opposed to this proposition, he had not himself brought forward some counter resolution. The truth was, and it was, a melancholy truth, that persons not of the lowest order, nor seditiously inclined, but possessing considerable property in the county, found themselves in a state or approaching ruin, and in the wreck of their fortunes, upon hearing any proposition which bore the appearance of relief, they caught at it, as drowning men catch at straws, without any intention of injuring the government or the constitution of the country. With regard to parliamentary reform, he had been applied to by several of his friends to know whether it was his intention to renew the motion which he had lately made, and he now begged to state, that upon the first favourable opportunity he would renew his attempt to effect a just, necessary, and constitutional reform. With respect to the part of this petition, which prayed for a just reduction of the interest of the public debt, he knew of no such as a just reduction of that interest, and considered parliamentary reform wholly unconnected, with the public debt. Even if he were disposed to say that late war was entered into, and persisted in against the will of the great majority of the people—a proposition which he was by no means ready to admit,—he should still contend, that that House was the legal representa- tive of the people, and that if any debts were contracted by it, future governments were bound to discharge them. The Cortes of Spain might furnish an example in this respect; for though they succeeded to one of the most vicious and detestable despotisms by which a nation had ever been oppressed, they still considered themselves bound to discharge the debts contracted by the former government. To such a measure as that recommended in this petition he would never consent, except in a case of overwhelming necessity—not a necessity wantonly assumed, or gratuitously suggested, but such a necessity as would be felt by all parties in that House, and which, if it ever arrived, ministers would probably be more quick-sighted in perceiving than any other party in that House. Did such a necessity exist at present? Far from it. Not only were we paying the interest of the debt, but we were reducing taxes which had hitherto been paid. Ever since the time of William 3rd, we had been contracting this debt. We had begun it in our struggles to preserve on the throne the king of our choice, in opposition to a rejected family whom foreign despots wanted to force back upon us. If we were the first to create a public debt and for so great a purpose, surely we could never be the first to violate faith with the public creditor [Hear, hear!].

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, he was not in the House when the petition was read, but he hoped that no objection would be made to its reception. However strongly he might reprobate the particular paragraph in question, he did not apprehend that it formed any objection to the petition being received. On the contrary, he thought it would be highly useful that this petition of the county of Kent should remain on the records of parliament, to warn other counties against being betrayed into the avowal of principles so disgraceful to themselves, and so calculated to bring ruin or the country. It was not with any surprise that he had heard the noble lord opposite disclaim a doctrine so unjust, so flagitious, and so pregnant with ruin and degradation to the country; but the noble lord must forgive him for saying, that he had heard part of his observations with great pain. The noble lord said, that he could never consent to such a measure, except in a case of overwhelming necessity. BY what process of reasoning could the noble lord couple the word consent with overwhelming necessity? When such a state of things as the noble lord contemplated, had thrown down all the barriers of restraint, and dissolved all the tics of morality, what room was there for consent? He protested against this mode of expression, because it was calculated to give too much countenance to the notion of that convenient sort of necessity, which might tempt gentlemen to give their consent to the spoliation of property which belonged as justly to the public creditor, as the lands of the house of Bedford did to the noble lord's family. He considered the right of the public creditor to the interest of the debt as sacred as that of the duke of Bedford to the manors to which he was legally entitled. He hoped the word "consent" would never again be mixed up with a transaction, which could only be one of pure violence; and he doubted not, that whenever he again introduced it, he would discuss the question in the same, temperate and enlightened manner; that the language of this petition would operate as a caution to parliamentary reformers, and induce them to pause before they attempted to break down the existing forms of the representation of the country, and place it in a state in which meetings like that of the county of Kent, might send mandates to that House, so inconsistent with all the principle of justice and sound policy.

Lord J. Russell

said, he had studiously qualified his expressions, by stating that he meant not a gratuitous necessity, but such a necessity, as would be felt alike by all parties in that House. He meant to put the strongest possible case of necessity; such a case, for instance, as when we were utterly unable to pay the interest of the debt, or when the presence of a foreign enemy at our gates rendered the independence and safety of the country paramount to every other consideration.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, he was happy to hear the anxiety of the noble lord to explain his expressions, but the case put by the noble lord could only justify the nation in postponing the performance of its engagements, and not in consenting to the violation of them. He exceedingly lamented, that the leaders of that meeting, for the sake of their station and character in the country, had not rescued themselves froth the disgrace of having such a proposition carried.

Lord J. Russell

said, he was ready to retract the word "consent" if the noble marquis wished it, but he really was not aware that the noble marquis was such a critic in language. He thought that the Whigs had been carried away by the feeling of the whole meeting, which feeling had been mainly produced by the measures of the noble lord opposite.

Mr. Calcraft

said, that if the two representatives of the county had made the statements to the meeting which they had made this evening, there would not have been fifty voices for the amendment. He lamented that they had not made known their indignation against such a proposition. The meeting had agreed to it from utter ignorance on the part of many, and many, from not having heard it at all. Those who called the meeting ought to have stood till this time, combating the amendment, rather than have allowed it to be attached to their petition. If they had acted so, the person who had proposed it, and who was not known as a freeholder, would soon have been obliged to take his horse and ride away. He disclaimed the amendment as not expressing the sentiments of the meeting, and had he not been engaged in duties which he conceived to be more important in that House, he could have successfully exposed the weakness and fallacy of the proposition. It was said I that gentlemen were taken by surprise; but when men undertook to manage public meetings, they ought to be prepared for emergencies of this sort. He had reason to know that the individual who proposed this rider had not the slightest expectation of seeing it adopted.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, that if his hon. colleague had joined him in opposing the proposition, or met him half way, Cobbett and his amendment would have been consigned to merited disgrace.

Mr. J. Smith

was convinced, that the great body of the freeholders of the county were incapable of supporting so flagitious a proposition. It was a severe mortification to him to find that the county of Kent was the first to come forward to petition parliament to break faith with the public creditor.

Mr. Brougham

said, that two objects seemed to be in the view of the noble lord opposite, and the worthy baronet, one to cast blame on the leaders of the Whig aristocracy; the other, to attack all public county meetings through the sides of the Kent meeting. And well they might come to this conclusion, if there were any foundation for their premises; for, if the freeholders of Kent were not to be trusted, either as to the purity of their motives, or the sagacity of their, views, he knew not where in all England, a county was to be found in whose probity or intelligence they could rely. He rose, therefore, for the purpose of vindicating both these parties, on the showing of the assailants themselves. If the meeting were to blame, then the Whig leaders must be exculpated; if the Whig leaders were to blame, then it was impossible to cast any imputation on the meeting. The hon. baronet had asked, why the Whig leaders had not come forward to open the eyes of the meeting, and resist the proposition? Why then, it followed of course, according to this view of the case, that if the Whig leaders had come forward, they would have been successful, and it was their own fault that they had not enlightened, the meeting. They might have resisted the proposition—it was their non-resistance to which the proposition owed its success. But what followed from this branch of the dilemma? If the Whig leaders were in fault, the meeting must escape from all blame; for it was to be presumed, that the real sense of the meeting was not in favour of this odious proposition, and that it would not have been agreed to if the Whig leaders had done their duty. The worthy baronet had, however, exculpated the Whig leaders, when he had stated, that one noble lord (Darnley) did come forward and oppose it. The worthy baronet did not deny that many of the Whig leaders gave their votes against the proposition—[Sir E. Knatchbull said, "some few of them."] And he (Mr. B.) had the assurance of those noble persons themselves, that they did vote against the obnoxious proposition. Yet the worthy baronet had most inconsistently blamed the Whig aristocracy for not opposing what, upon his own showing, it appeared they had opposed, and he had blamed the meeting for having been the dupes of that proposition. He was really at a loss to conceive what the worthy baronet of his hon. friend (Mr. Calcraft) would have wished the Whig leaders to do more than it was admitted they had done. He could assure the House, that it was the fixed and clear opinion of many gentlemen who were present, that the meeting were decidedly in favour of the proposal, and that all resistance on their part would have been unavailing. He was inclined to think that if a farther explanation of the nature and consequences of the proposition had been given, it might have been rejected. He protested, however, against the doctrine, that this addition to the petition, ought to diminish the weight and authority which belonged to the rest of it. The meeting was emphatically a meeting of the county of Kent: it was crowded with men of all parties, many of whom were friends of the worthy baronet. No man could deny, that with respect to their complaint of grievances, and the question of parliamentary reform, the petition spoke the deliberate sense of the meeting; and it was too much to contend that the addition of an obnoxious paragraph, which had been embodied into it from accidental circumstances, ought to diminish the weight to which the petition was entitled. He trusted the people of England would never be deterred from exercising the right which they had in this instance exercised, and that they would continue to show their clear and deliberate sense of the distresses under which they were labouring, and the causes of those distresses, in petitions to parliament while the session lasted, and to the Throne during the recess. The less such representations were attempted to be stifled—the more fully and freely they were discussed—the more securely would public credit be placed on a basis which nothing could shake but that overwhelming necessity which was paramount to all argument, and which, as the noble marquis had justly observed, put all consent entirely out of the question. Such a proposition ought never to be entertained but in circumstances of the greatest extremity; least of all ought it to be brought forward in the crude, hasty, ill-considered, and not at all digested form in which the last paragraph of the petition embodied a sentiment which would never have been adopted by the meeting, had it been thoroughly canvassed, and which he hoped never to see introduced into a petition again.

Mr. Honywood

said, that a noble friend of his would also have explained to the meeting the fatal consequence of the proposition, had it not been that he was fatigued by being squeezed up waggon.

The Marquis of Londonderry

denied having said a word against county meetings generally. All he had said was this, that as these petitioners had consigned to a reformed parliament the task of committing a spoliation upon the public creditor, he thought that the country should guard itself against any system of representation which might be likely to entertain such crude and sweeping suggestions.

Mr. Brougham

said, that however objectionable or unjust the proposition of the petitioners might be, it was not more so than the conduct of the noble marquis respecting the restriction, and the subsequent resumption of cash payments.

Lord Clifton

said, it might seem odd for a man to accuse himself; but he did think that the Whig leaders had wanted spirit at the meeting. How Mr. Cobbett had got possession of the meeting he could hardly conceive, unless from the circumstance of his having spoken towards the close of the meeting, and amidst that confusion which generally attended the breaking up of such bodies. But, notwithstanding the objectionable character of the rider, he believed the sentiments expressed in the petition to be the sentiments of a great proportion of the freeholders of Kent; and he hoped that future meetings would take warning how they annexed to their petitions sentiments and. principles of a revolutionary nature.

Mr. Secretary Peel

thought, that the manly and becoming confession of the noble lord had done ten times more towards setting his party right with the people of England, than the defence which had been made for them by the hon. and learned member. But, when the noble lord expressed his astonishment how Mr. Cobbett could have influenced the meeting, he put a query which, in fact, he himself had answered. Mr. Cobbett had succeeded in influencing the meeting, simply because he had not been manfully resisted. What was the charge against the meeting in question? Was it blamed for having met to petition parliament for retrenchment? No; it was blamed for having proposed an unjust and iniquitous measure. The more decided the opposition of the Whig leaders to Mr. Cobbett's proposition, the greater had been their blame that they had not stood forward, and explained to the men of Kent the impropriety of the course they were following. If the being squeezed in a waggon was an excuse for one individual, it could not be an excuse for all. After all, he preferred the manly proposal, for a downright reduction of the interest of the debt, to the mysterious insinuations of the learned member for Winchelsea; nor could he think that that learned member had much palliated the iniquity of the present suggestion, by attempting to show that parliament had sanctioned measures still more iniquitous.

Mr. Bennet

said, he was not surprised that the right hon. secretary was desirous to do away the disgrace which attached to the pillage in the first instance of the public creditor, and the pillage afterwards of the public debtor, which had been committed by the government. These profligate and abandoned examples had corrupted the moral, feelings of the country; though, after all, he did not believe that the objectionable proposal could be considered as the act of a discussing body.

Mr. Western

was astonished at the consummate assurance [Hear, hear!] with which the right hon. gentleman had denounced the men of Kent, for an expression wrung from them in a moment of irritation. Why had not the friends of the right hon. secretary come forward to face and to instruct the meeting? If only one-tenth of the county was favourable to the rider, why had not the other nine-tenths come forward to oppose it? It was too much for gentlemen to suppose, that public justice was due to no one but to the public creditor. Why was it not equally to be measured to the public debtor?

Mr. Hume

contended, that the words of the petition could, in fairness, be construed to mean no more than a similar reduction in the interest of the debt to that lately made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. gentleman had reduced the interest of the 5 per cents to 4 per cent, and had hinted that then per cents might ultimately be reduced to 3. Now, there was no reason to suppose that the petitioners did not mean such a reduction. When ministers had plunged the country into a state in which those who not long ago were in a state of comparative comfort, had no prospect before them but a gaol or a poor-house, they ought not to be over critical about the terms of a petition.

Sir F. Burdett

thought it was hard that, his hon. friend, the member for Kent, should be fallen upon in the way the he had been by both sides of the House, inconsequence of his omission to do what few of the most experienced public men would have had presence of mind to do in his situation. It was plain that his hon. friend was overwhelmed by a sudden ebullition of popular feeling. But least of all, did he think hon. friend's colleague, had any right to censure him, when he, the Tory member for the county, and known to be hostile to the proposition altogether, did not manfully step forward to combat its adoption by the meeting. The scheme proposed in the rider, was, called, on the other side, a robbery; but difference of opinion might exist as to that fact. If any thing like an absolute fraud had been recommended, gentlemen would have been bound to resist it; but there were many who viewed the suggestion in a different light. The men of Kent did not say, that the public creditor should not have 20s. to his pound; but it was the opinion of many most able men, that in consequence of the measures of the right hon, gentleman opposite, the public creditor was likely to get 30s. in the pound. If that opinion, was well, founded, what man could be expected to submit, in the present condition of the country, to be stripped of his property in furtherance of such a system? And he (sir F. Burdett) did conscientiously believe, that not only the agricultural interest, but the whole productive labour and capital of the country, was at the present moment paying the public creditor 30s. in the pound. After all, then, what was there so very objectionable in the scheme which had been proposed? He did not regret that it had been proposed. The proposition had brought the subject matter into discussion; and such discussion was absolutely necessary to the safety of the country. Let the right hon. secretary make that clear to the country which was so very clear to himself; namely, that the proposition was a dishonest proposition; and not apply abuse to every suggestion thrown out upon political economy. The right hon. secretary said, that he liked the plain dealing of Cobbett better than the mysterious insinuations of the learned member for Winchelsea. Now, he was glad that plain dealing was gratifying to him, because the right hon. secretary was in a fair way to have a great deal of it. Let not the noble lord opposite seek to engage the House in a warfare with the people. The noble lord would find the country disposed to make every necessary sacrifice, although not inclined to be the dupe of sophistry, which almost every idiot could see through, or of mock plans of retrenchment, which ended in the imposition of additional burthens upon the people. He was glad that the petition was not to be rejected, and thought there was no pretence for branding any individual concerned in it with dishonesty.

Mr. Monck

would go as far as any man for the payment of debts public or private, and would live on bread and water to discharge them; but the public faith had been first broken in the year 1797, when paper had been substituted for the metallic currency. The contracting of 800,000,000l. of debt was a species of dishonesty, for ministers never could have hoped to discharge it. He thought there was a broad distinction betwixt the public creditor who lent his money in gold before the year 1797, and those who lent it since that time in a depreciated paper, convertible neither into gold, silver, nor copper. He thought it was their duty to do what the French had done with their assignats, treating all debts contracted in that species of money as in a depreciated currency, and legalizing their liquidation in the present currency with reference to that depreciation.

Mr. Wilson

could not agree, that there was any analogy between the English Bank-note and the French assignats. Were they to attempt to treat contracts in the way proposed, they would plunge the country into inevitable ruin. He did not see how the gentlemen opposite could blame the resumption of cash payments. He was sure that until they had found that some of the consequences of that measure were ruinous, a great majority of them were in favour of it.

Mr. Philips

attributed all the evils which the country was suffering to the suspension of cash payments in 1797, and trusted that the country would never again be agitated by a return to that system.

Mr. Lockhart

said, that whatever might be urged against a paper currency, this country would never have been able to carry on the war to the extent it had done, without its aid. Like Oliver Cromwell, who, finding that he could not purchase provisions for his forces, voted a general fast, the chancellor of the exchequer, finding that he had not a sufficient quantity of gold, voted that paper was equal to it in value; and it became so much so, as to answer his purpose. This, however, was no reason why the argument should be turned against those, who, feeling the evils brought upon them by the system, prayed for some reduction of the interest of the national debt. He did not justify such a measure, but we ought not to condemn those who called for it as dishonest; for he was satisfied that no portion of the British public would think of such a plan, unless they were driven to it by the most pressing necessity. He trusted that parliament, after the reduction of taxation, as far as possible, would in the next session inquire how for the different kinds of property might be brought to bear their fair portion of the public burthens.

Mr. J. Martin

thought that nothing could be more insulting to parliament, than to call upon them to do that which those who made honest. As he believed that a great majority of the petitioners were ignorant of the effect of what they asked, he would consent that it should be received. Feeling, however, that the demand was in its nature unjust, he trusted that parliament would not separate without expressing their opinion upon it. They had, the other evening, declared that they would not debase the coin of the country: let them now agree to a declaration, that, they would not defraud the public creditor.

On the motion for printing the petition,

Mr. Brougham

observed, that when the men of Kent were blamed for calling for a reduction of the interest of the debt, we should recollect what had been done by parliament on former occasions. With respect to the prayer of the petition he could not agree to it. He thought that, in justice and good policy, we were bound not to touch the principal, and to pay the interest as long as we could; and he doubted not that if economy were practised, we should be able fully to satisfy the public creditor, without severely pressing upon the people. But if this economy and reduction did not take place, then would come that necessity which would prevent the possibility of his being paid. The right hon. secretary had praised the manner in which the petitioners had made the request, and had said, that it was more manly than any round-about and insidious attempts at the same object. If the right hon. gentleman meant to allude to the intentions of gentlemen on his (Mr. B's.) side, he must tell him that he was wholly mistaken; but if he wished to apply them where they were so well deserved, let him look around and he would there find the abettors and supporters of a fraud carried on by insidious, unmanly, base, treacherous, and violent measures—measures from the effects of which the country was not likely to recover, under the, present system of management.

Mr. Peel

said, he never did deal in underhand insinuations. He had adverted to propositions made in that House, both by the learned gentleman, and by the hon. member for Shrewsbury, founded on a supposed necessity, when the public faith could not be preserved. Such anticipations were calculated to produce that necessity, which never should be contemplated in that House, any more than in private life it should be contemplated, that a case of highway robbery might be justifiable.

Mr. H. G. Bennet

said, he would repeat, that the public had no right to pay more than they had borrowed, and that if they borrowed 20s., they ought not to be called upon to pay 30s. By the measures of government both the public creditor and debtor had been defrauded—the former in 1797, the latter in 1819. Ministers had acted upon a system, the ruinous effects of which uniformly would exist when their names should be buried in oblivion, or if remembered, only as the authors of incalculable mischief to their country.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, that if the hon. member chose to become the advocate of revolutionary measures, he must find some better pretext than the reasoning which be had put forth. His argument about not paying 30s. where we had borrowed only 20s., was just as reasonable as if he should object to paying at par that which we had borrowed at 60s. The bargain was made upon clear and intelligible principles, and they ought honestly to perform their part of the contract.

Mr. Bennet

said, that no vote of his had ever gone to defraud the public creditor or debtor. Let the noble marquis mark that!

Mr. Ricardo

was clear, that if the public creditor had at one time received 30s. in place of 20s., he had at other times received 20s. in place of 30s. So that, in the whole of these transactions, be had great doubts whether the public creditor had been benefitted.

Mr. Hume

was sorry that such opinions with respect to the payment of the public creditor should be held by his hon. friends; but, though he differed from them, he could not shut his eyes to the fact, that they were opinions held by some of the best informed persons in the country. The noble lord would do well to look to his own conduct in the sister country, before he charged his hon. friend with a disposition to favour revolutionary measures. These, however, were threats which the noble lord had held out on every occasion where economy and retrenchment were recommended; but, like the boy in the fable, the cry so often repeated, was, no longer attended to. He differed from his hon. friends in the opinion that any necessity could ever arise for reducing the interest to the public creditor. He thought no circumstance could arise in this country for any measure being enforced against the fundholder which was not also applicable to be landholder. The country was rich in resources. All that was wanted was, a just and economical administration of them.

Mr. Honywood

said, that there was not one person in the county who was aware of the intention to introduce the obnoxious clause into the petition.

Ordered to be printed.