HC Deb 09 March 1824 vol 10 cc861-5

On the resolution "That 114,531l. be granted for defraying the charge of the Ordnance Barrack department,"

Mr. Hobhouse

observed, that the hon. and gallant officer opposite was mistaken, when he had contended, the other night, that the system of Barracks was recognised by the petition of rights. Complaints were made, indeed, at the period to which the hon. and gallant officer adverted, of the billeting of soldiers, on the people, but there were no such thing as a standing army at that time. The barrack system had long ago been decided against, as a novel and unconstitutional mode of lodging a standing army. That system was calculated, perhaps, to turn out a finer soldier for the parade—a living machine, more likely to pay prompt and implicit obedience to his officers; but he was sure the hon. and gallant officer, who was not less an excellent citizen, than an honourable soldier, did not wish to make a mere automaton of a soldier, or to perpetuate a system which separated the character of the soldier and the citizen. Long before the existence of the barrack system, our soldiers had distinguished themselves by victories, as splendid as any which had since been obtained. The soldier who mixed freely with his countrymen might not make so good a machine for the parade, but he was a better man, and a better citizen. The union of the characters of the soldier and the citizen had been strongly insisted upon by our ablest constitutional writers. The gallant officer had told them the other night, and perhaps he could not be blamed for doing so, when surrounded with such applauders, that the people of England had themselves called for barracks throughout the kingdom. In support of that opinion he had quoted the bill of rights, but the bill of rights only denounced the quartering of soldiers on the people as a grievance. How, then, could the gallant officer, in mirth or in seriousness, as an argument, or as a piece of waggery, interpret such a declaration into a preference of the barrack to the billeting system? If he was anxious to ascertain the feeling of the people of England on the subject, let him look both to the practice of our ancestors, and to the sentiments entertained at the present day; or, rather, let him confess, that the system owed its support to those alone who maintained the necessity of arming one portion of the people against the rest. If there existed no other use in the motion with which he should conclude, it would shew that there was one person in the House at least, and he was of opinion that there were many, who knew the feelings of the people of England better than to coincide with the gallant officer's account of it, and who respected the constitution of the country too well to approve of a system incompatible with its spirit.—The hon. gentleman concluded by moving the following amendment to the resolution:

"That it appears to this House, that since the conclusion of the war in 1815, more than 2,500,000l. sterling have been expended in the Barrack department established in Great Britain and Ireland, and that 136,531 l are proposed to be devoted to the same object in the current year.

"That it appears to this House, that a part of the sum so required is to be laid out in the construction of a permanent barrack on the site of the King's Mews, at Charing-cross; and that thus, in the heart of the city and liberties of Westminster, another military station, separating the soldier from the citizen, is to be added to the many similar establishments to be found in various parts of the kingdom.

"That this House cannot but view with the utmost jealousy and suspicion, the continuance and increase of a system utterly inconsistent with the ancient laws and usages of England, such as they find them expounded by all the authorities who have treated of the constitution of this country, and more particularly by Mr. Justice Blackstone, who, in his Commentaries on the laws of England, after expressly declaring that the laws and constitution of these kingdoms, know no such state as that of a perpetual standing soldiery; makes use, in a subsequent passage, of the following remarkable words:—'Nothing, then, according to these principles, ought to be more guarded against in a free state, than making the military power, when such a one is necessary to be kept on foot, a body too distinct from the people. Like ours, therefore, it ought only to be enlisted for a short and limited time; the soldiers also should live intermixed with the people; no separate camp—no barracks—no inland fortresses should be allowed; and perhaps it might be still better, if, by dismissing a stated number, and enlisting others, at every renewal of their term, a circulation could be kept up between the army and the people, and the citizen and the soldier be more intimately connected together.'

"That this House partaking, therefore, those free sentiments with the great commentator on the laws of this, their country, and wishing to discourage the military system therein decried, will not vote a larger sum than 90,000l. for the barrack department in Great Britain in the current year; and this House further humbly begs leave to urge, that no new barrack for soldiers ought to be erected in the midst or in the vicinity of the metropolis."

Sir H. Hardinge

said, that with regard to the constitutional question he would take the advice of the hon. gentleman, and avoid it altogether, as it had been sufficiently discussed on a former occasion. He would undertake, however, to shew how the barrack system came to be so generally extended. It was well known, that various petitions had been presented, from time to time, praying for relief from the billeting system, which, at the breaking out of the revolutionary war, was resorted to as an act of necessity. In 1803, when the war broke out again, government deemed it advisable to send troops to the coast, as a means of providing against invasion. It was impossible to provide the troops so employed with quarters at the public-houses in those districts, and various petitions against it were again forwarded to parliament. Accordingly it was determined, in order to relieve the people from the inconvenience of the billeting system, that several barracks should be built within those districts. Government could not, therefore, be charged with having built those barracks in opposition to the liberties of the subject, since they were for the protection of the country, and in compliance with the desire of the people themselves. Besides, the number of these barracks had been greatly diminished since the peace. The hon. gentleman had stated the intention of the government to erect barracks at Charing-cross, as one of his reasons for opposing the vote; but whatever might eventually be done upon that subject, he was not himself apprised of any intention to convert the Kings Mews into barracks for the soldiery. The Board of Ordnance, in met, had no power to decide the question, though he would confess that, in his opinion, such a change would be attended with great advantage. He would oppose this single fact to all the reasoning of the hon. gentleman—that before the revolutionary war, all the soldiery in London were dispersed in billets about the town, and that their discipline was so far destroyed and their morals so corrupted by the opportunities thus afforded them, that in the years 1791, 1792 and 1793, among the number of public executions, out of every fourteen that were hanged there was one guardsman. Since the establishment of barracks, the case was so far altered, that it was a rare thing to hear of a guardsman being arraigned. It must be obvious to all who consider the subject dispassionately, that the soldiers were not only much more exposed to acquire profligate habits under the billeting system, and to commit outrages when removed from the control of their officers, but were also more likely to relax in their discipline; for when a soldier went to billet he deposited his arms in the armoury, from whence he did not take them again until he was summoned to parade; he had therefore less of the habits of a soldier. Upon the whole, there could be no doubt but that in a large metropolis like London, the establishment of barracks had a tendency to make better soldiers and better men, than the former practice of dispersing them through the metropolis in public houses.

Mr. Hume

contended that the arguments of the gallant officer were not applicable to the present state of the country. He had described a state of expected invasion but we were now at peace, and consequently exempted from the necessity upon which he had rested his defence of the system. A man did not cease to be a citizen when he became a soldier, and should not be regarded as a mere automaton, to be moved only by the will of his commanding officer. If they wished to keep the soldiers separate from the people, that was no reason why they should multiply barracks through the town. They might remove them from the houses of the people. The sum called for by this grant was monstrous, and the object of it was, to maintain a military despotism. For these reasons he should vote for the amendment of his hon. friend.

The amendment was negatived without a division.