HC Deb 18 March 1823 vol 8 cc615-23

On the order of the day for the third reading of the Mutiny bill,

Sir F. Burdett

adverted to the atrocious, and unmanly system of flogging which was still kept up in the army, and which he had hoped the government would, ere this, have seen the propriety of taking some means to abolish. The summary, dismissal of an officer for the cruelty with which he had inflicted this punishment, proved that the government were not in sensible to the evils arising from this system. The conduct of that officer would almost justify a stretch of power in the mode of his dismissal; but it would be much better to put an end at once to so odious and degrading a punishment, than to attempt to mitigate the evils arising from it by another act of arbitrary power. This was a subject which deserved the separate consideration of the House; and he should content himself at present with giving notice that he should, on a future day, bring forward a motion, in which he would endeavour to persuade the House, that the time was arrived when this most odious, unmanly, and detestable punishment ought to be altogether abolished.—That he might not be supposed to acquiesce in the conduct which ministers seemed determined to pursue Abe present contest between France and Spain, he could not omit that opportunity of expressing his extreme surprise and regret at that conduct—conduct, to which he scarcely knew what epithet to apply, and which was utterly unworthy of this country. A standing army had only been introduced and maintained in time of peace in this country, under the pretence of the necessity of preserving the balance of power, and the independence of the nations of Europe. This being the only cause for which a standing army was kept up in time of peace, he might fairly enter his protest against that dereliction of duty betrayed by his majesty's ministers, when, calling upon the House for the support of so large a military force, they at the same time abandoned all the objects for which that force could be constitutionally employed. In the absence of the secretary of state for foreign affairs it might not be considered altogether correct to enter fully into this question; and he was disposed to wait, in order to hear what ministers had to say. From the statements which had been made at the commencement of the session they had led the House to believe, that they would maintain the honour of England and the independence and liberties of Europe. Undoubtedly, the incur- ring of, fresh debt and fresh difficulties by a new war was a very, serious consideration; but these calculations must give way, when the character, and, honour, and permanent interests of the country were at stake. There was but one sound and manly course of policy to pursue, unless those very men who had already reduced the country so low, had at length brought it to that lowest depth of degradation, when they no longer dared to say to the family of the Bourbons, "You must not commit acts of unprovoked aggression on the independent nations of Europe; you must not overturn that balance of power, on which the safety of this country depends, and never more than at the present moment when from the policy of our government, so contrary to that of our forefathers, all the secondary governments were absorbed under the dominion of two or three of the coalesced despots of the continents, If any thing like a balance of power were to be maintained, Spain and Portugal must be supported, and this country should be prepared to make any sacrifice rather than the sacrifice of its character and honour. If we submitted to the degradation which ministers would impose upon us, England, to use the expression of Mr. Burke at the commencement of the French revolution, would be blotted out of the map of Europe. The conduct of ministers was not only base and degrading to the character of the Country—it was not only mean and unjust—but it was unwise and impolitic. One of the greatest statesmen that ever sat in that House, Mr. Fox, who was naturally a friend to peace, and averse to plunging the country into an unjust and unnecessary war, had declared, that if there was one circumstance above all others which could justify a war, it was where the national honour was concerned. Was the national honour to be tamely sacrificed, and were we to sit still without daring to let We Bourbons know that we had the right and the power to restrain them from making aggressions on the liberties of an independent nation. Setting side the question of feeling—putting out of view those generous impulses which should induce us to aid a brave nation in the noble struggle for independence—what was the obvious policy which this country was called upon to pursue? If France succeeded in over turning the liberties of Spain, could any man suppose that she would stop there? Would not Portu- gal be included in the aggression. And if Portugal was included, how could we guarantee her independence, in conformity with the note of the right hon. secretary except by an armed resistance? There, was no more sense nor policy, than honour or good faith, in the conduct of his majesty's government. The question was not, whether this country would be compelled to take a part in the contest between France and Spain; but whether we should now come forward with honour, and with the certainty of success, to aid a gallant people, who had shown themselves capable of sustaining the brunt of the battle, and who, with the slightest assistance from England, would crush their infamous aggressors? If it had been finally determined that this country should pursue so mean, so dastardly, and so impolitic a course, what was the inevitable inference? Why, that the government had resorted to the cowardly expedient of advancing the views of the holy alliance, by means from which every Englishman must revolt with abhorrence. If this was the course on which the government had determined, why was not parliament acquainted with it? Why had parliament been deluded into a ridiculous forbear ante? Had it not been for this artifice on the part of ministers, he (sir F. B.) knew not whether one-half of the eatimates would have been granted, or whether any of the measures proposed by them would have met with the acquiescence of the House? They had excited hopes in the country, that they would pursue a system of policy worthy of a great nation; and they must abide by the consequences to which the disappointment of those hopes would expose them. For his own part, he protested altogether against any acquiescence in the line of policy which ministers had thought fit to pursue, nor could he express any other feeling with regard to it than that of unqualified contempt.

Mr. Secretary Peel

rose rather to deprecate discussion, than to reply to anything which had fallen from the hon. baronet. The admission of the hon. baronet himself, justified, this course; because, if it was not proper without due notice to bring on a motion for the abolition of military flogging, still less was it prudent, without regular notice, to discuss that subject to which the latter portion of the hon. baronet's speech had applied. His right hon. friend, shortly after the recess, would be prepared, if matters remained in their present position, to lay a full statement before the House. He could have wished that the hon. baronet had waited, before he made his charge, to hear what case the government could make out. For his own part, he, was free to confess, that he differed entirely from the hon. baronet in principle upon the subject; and he believed that the country would hear, with almost universal satisfaction, that, perfectly consistent with the maintenance of her honour and interests, there was nothing at present in her foreign relations which induced government to think that her tranquillity would be disturbed.

Mr. Hobhouse

thought that his hon. friend had merely followed the line of his duty. A strong suspicion prevailed, that, so far from observing a strict neutrality, the English government had supported the proposed oppressions of France, rather than remonstrated against them. It was rumoured, that the English minister at Madrid had been endeavouring to persuade the Cortes to give up some portion of that constitution which both Spain and the holy alliance had sworn to support. He trusted no such conduct had been pursued by ministers. With respect to the Mutiny bill, he felt indebted to his gallant friend for mooting the point afresh as to the right of the crown to dismiss Officers without subjecting them to a court-martial. As to the arguments of the noble secretary at war, upon the exercise of the prerogative on the point in question, they were absolutely absurd. To talk of an inherent prerogative of the crown to dismiss officers from the army, when it was well known that, anciently, the kings of England had no such thing as a standing army, was ridiculous. He admitted, that the right had been frequently claimed for the prerogative; but to represent it as being undisputed, was far, indeed, from the fact. Let the House look to what passed on the celebrated affair of lord Cobham's dismissal. The right was so far from being admitted, that it was emphatically denied by all the greatest men in the House. His hon. friend had been rebuked for citing Montesquieu and Blackstone upon such a question. He would offer an authority of more weight than either—that of George 1st. Upon the debate occasioned by lord Cobham's dismissal (which tool place in the reign of George 2nd), lord Stanhope informed the House, that he had once had a conversation with George 1st;in which his late majesty pointedly disapproved of the exercise of the prerogative, doubted the existence of the right, and expressed his intention of employing lord Stanhope to frame a bill, and bring it into parliament, to abridge it altogether, by declaring, that no such right existed with the crown. To be sure, the authority of a dead king was not equal to that of a living secretary; and it might be as little valued as that of the commentators on the law of England. When they talked, however, of the danger to the constitution from denying the right to the crown, they talked as if they were addressing the parliament of 1640, and not the present House of Commons. He trusted that a specific motion would be brought forward, to withdraw this power from the crown.

Mr. W. Courtenay

confessed he entertained an opinion upon the subject diametrically opposite to that which the hon. gentleman had just expressed. He was prepared to maintain, that in the eye of the law, every thing must be considered as the undoubted right of the prerogative, which had so remained from the time of the Revolution down to this period. That this power in the prerogative had been enjoyed and exercised since the Revolution downwards, was what he positively asserted. That it had been occasionally called in question, he did not deny. Nothing could be more strange than the authority adduced by the hon. gentleman. George 1st, a foreigner, though called to the government, under circumstances certainly dear to the feelings of the country, was yet the last person to be cited upon the doctrines of a constitution with which he could not be over well acquainted. Supposing the question, whether such a power did or did not exist in the crown, were now agitated for the first time, could it be answered in any way but in the affirmative? Could an army be kept on foot without that law? Were there other means to prevent an army once on foot, from becoming the greatest nuisance to the constitution and the liberties of the country? With respect to the other point, he denied that the hon. baronet was correct in the assumption, that the country was prepared to go along with him, in the propriety of plunging into the war. That was the general feeling of the people of England. It was undoubtedly true that they would be ready to undergo considerable sacrifices, in order to preserve the honour of the country unimpaired; but it was as true, that they would concur in their praises of ministers, if, keeping that honour unsullied, they should be enabled to bring to a consummation that happy state of prosperity which the country were now enjoying.

Sir R. Wilson

denied that the people would entertain those feelings, with respect to the preserving of neutrality, which the last speaker had asserted they would do. They would consider the causes of the war; they would see that it was not a war against Spain merely, but a war of tyrants, fanatics, and bigots, against the rights of free nations. They would see that it was a war against liberty; they would observe who were the crusaders; they would see who were the advocates of neutrality, now that the strife was against liberty; and, probably, they would find them to be the very parties who had preached up war when it was raging against liberty. For, what was this war of France upon Spain? Was it not for that which it was impossible for any nation to give up? Was it not to forte Spain to yield the point of honour? And, after she had done that, they might bid her take back her inquisition, and all the other engines of ignorance and slavery. There was, in short, no point of degradation at which she would stop. The French had dared the dishonour of Spain. He was an unworthy Briton who would tamely see France trample on the rights of Spain. Let the war proceed, and he felt certain that the people of this country would discharge the duty which they owed the Spaniards. He hoped and trusted, that this brave and generous people would, notwithstanding the Foreign Enlistment bill, go over in crowds, and rally round the banners of honour and freedom.

Mr. T. Wilson

trusted that the country would be satisfied with the explanation given by ministers. For his part, he was not afraid of being charged with possessing a dastardly spirit, because he hoped that the national honour might be preserved, without the hazard and difficulties of a war.

Colonel Davies

expressed his surprise at what had fallen from the hon. city member. That hon. gentleman had attended the meeting convened, for the purpose of making a sort of confession of faith with regard to Spain. Why, in the name of God, had that hon. gentleman, holding the opinions he now professed, given his countenance and aid to that solemn ceremony? For what did they call the meeting; and what was their object in inviting the Spanish ministers? To wish them well? It was a cruel mockery to inform them that they wished them success, and then to talk of neutrality.

Mr. Ricardo

protested against the inference, with respect to those who had attended the dinner given to the Spanish minister. He felt a deep sympathy with the Spanish people; but he was very far from intending, by his attendance at that meeting, to pledge himself to engage the nation in war. He had no hesitation in declaring his opinion, that it would be wise in this country to keep out of the war. At any rate, the House ought to hear what ministers had to say, before it came to a decision on the subject. Right or wrong, it was not fair to condemn them unheard.

Mr. Denison

said, he had refused to attend the meeting, because he would not be considered as pledging himself to support a war on behalf of the Spanish nation. He was for preserving the national honour, without the hazard of war, if that were practicable. He was sorry to differ from his friends; but he was convinced the country ought to do any thing, consistently with its honour, to shun that abyss from which it had so recently escaped.

Sir J. Newport

said, that no man deprecated more than he did, the conduct of France towards Spain; but that would not make him forget the calamities of war. The evils of the late war had been severely felt. We could not help them now. But they should teach us to pause, ere we plunged the country into another. He hoped he should be understood. Rather than compromise the honour of the country, he would go to, war; but still he thought that war should, if possible, be avoided.

Mr. Jones

said, that during the late war, he remembered hearing the hon. baronet opposite deprecate the interference of one country in the internal affairs of another; whether that country were ruled by a lawful king, a directory, or a republican government. He should like to hear explained, the circumstances which had induced the hon. baronet and his friends to change their opinions upon this important point.

Mr. W. Williams

said, that when he recollected the conduct of ministers on the occasion of the infamous attack upon Naples, he felt that he could not give them credit for liberality. He was most impatient, therefore, to see the documents which were to be produced. Respecting the dinner at which he had attended, he denied having the least idea of pledging himself to any particular line of conduct. His object was to hold out to the world his detestation of the principles upon which France was proceeding, with regard to Spain. It was impossible for him to convey, in suitable language, what he felt with regard to the conduct of the despots of Europe. He should best come near it by using the words of a modern poet:— Nations would do well T' extort their truncheons from the puny hands Of heroes, whose infirm and baby minds Are gratified with mischief; and who spoil, Because men suffer it, their toy, the world.

The bill was read a third time.