HC Deb 07 March 1826 vol 14 cc1192-8

The resolutions of the committee of supply to which the Army Estimates were referred, were reported to the House. On the question, that the report be now read,

Mr. Hobhouse

rose and said, that it was his intention, in pursuance of the notice which he had given, to propose a specific reduction of the number of troops which his majesty's ministers had thought fit to call on the House to vote as necessary for the military service of the country. The present, he knew, was rather an inauspicious moment for bringing forward a subject of so much importance; but he hoped that gentlemen would listen to him for a few moments, while he stated his reasons for considering the present as the most improper period that could be selected for proposing so large a military establishment as ministers now demanded from the House. The noble Secretary at War had told them that it was easy for gentlemen on the opposition side of the House, to declaim on such topics as the danger of keeping up a standing army, and the necessity which existed for the reduction of taxation. It might be easy or not; but that circumstance depended on the taste and temper of the audience to whom the declamation was addressed. Now, if (as he believed it would be admitted was the case) the noble lord had the audience in his favour, it was much easier for him to indulge in observation on the opposite topics—to argue that such and such reduction were not possible—than for those to whom the noble lord had alluded, to work up, with any profit or effect, those trite and worn-out subjects, which had been so often expatiated on within the walls of parliament, and passed by with total disregard. Now, the noble lord, in the speech which he delivered when he proposed the army estimates, had given the House no reason whatever for continuing the present large military establishment in time of peace; and still less had he assigned any ground for the increase which he had proposed; for, though it was comparatively small, still it was an increase; and in this period of public pressure, it was the bounden duty of ministers, if they asked for a large standing army, in this the eleventh year of peace, to come down with something like cogent arguments in support of such a proposition. An observation had been made by an hon. member on a former evening, that before ministers called on the House for those enormous supplies, the chancellor of the Exchequer ought to have laid: before the country something like a financial statement—that prior to the application for those supplies, the House should have been correctly informed of the situation of the financial resources of the country. Nothing of the kind had been done, and all they had heard, inside and outside of the doors of parliament, was, that there was a great difference between the state of the country in the present and in the last year—that all the happy prospects of wealth and prosperity were unfortunately overclouded, and that distress prevailed in every quarter. Surely, when this was the case, parliament ought not to tolerate an augmented scale of expenditure. He would call to the recollection of gentlemen the vote of the House of Commons in 1822; and if nothing had since occurred in the foreign or domestic relations of the country to justify an increased military force, then be would call on those who held and ought to guard the purse of the nation, to reduce that augmentation which had unfortunately been made to the army subsequently to the year 1822. He did not mean to contend that the country could not pay it; but he would assert that the country, however able, ought not to pay it. Unless ministers could show that these establishments were necessary for the dignity of the Crown, the tranquillity of the country, or for securing to the nation that lofty position in which it ought to stand, they should be steadily refused by parliament. The weight of proof, as to the necessity of such establishments, lay entirely with ministers. In 1825, the amount of taxation was 52,000,000l. And, what was it in 1821? The amount of positive taxation was then very nearly 1,000,000l. less than in 1825; and yet, in 1821, the House deemed it necessary, under the sanction of ministers, and loudly called on by the agricultural interests, and by none more so than by the hon. member for Dorsetshire (Mr. Bankes), to come to an unanimous vote, recommending that every possible reduction that could be made in the different departments, and particularly in the more extended establishments, without detriment to the public service, should be effected immediately. The noble lord (Castlereagh), then at the head of his majesty's government, de- clared that the business of the country could not be carried on if the reduction of a single soldier took place. The hon. member for Aberdeen moved for a reduction of 10,000 men, and his proposition was negatived. Well, however, did he recollect, that very shortly afterwards the noble Secretary at War came down to the House, and stated that ministers had been able to make a reduction of 12,300 men, and that the reduction would have been carried still further, if it had not been for the disturbed state of Ireland. That country was now in a state of tranquillity. So were the colonies. Why, then, in a period of profound peace, should this immense force be continued? Above all, why should it be augmented? When an attempt was made to keep up the military establishment in 1816, lord Grenville, who was not then in his majesty's councils, but who would not do any thing to thwart unnecessarily the measures of government, had said, in a speech delivered by him elsewhere, that it was useless to discuss minor matters, so long as we kept up this enormous military establishment, which cut at the root of the British constitution. In the last session of parliament, the noble lord opposite proposed an increase of 13,000 men. The noble lord disclaimed the state of Ireland as being the cause; but many others who supported the augmentation, and among others the Knight of Kerry, did consider the situation of Ireland to be the true reason for proposing this increase. The noble lord at that period told the House, that the situation of the colonies demanded the augmentation; and, notwithstanding the vote of 1821, and the reduction effected in 1822, the increase was granted, because the noble lord declared that such an increase was absolutely necessary, if they paid a due regard to the comfort of the soldiers on foreign stations. If, however, such relief were necessary for the colonies, it did not follow that so large a force should be kept up at home. The force kept up here was the very worst that could be devised for giving relief to the colonies. Why were there so many household troops, and so large a number of cavalry regiments? They were not only useless, but, in his mind, it was unconstitutional to continue them. He wished to know when they were to come to an end of this system? At what period were they likely to discover that the standing army was extensive enough? He saw no end to the system. It' was not bounded by 87,000 men, by 107,000 men, or by any indefinite number which might be proposed at any future session. The present was a most opportune moment for those who had joined in the resolution of 1821 to say, not only that there should be no further augmentation of the military establishment, but that it should be brought back to what it was reduced to in 1822, when the number then voted was declared by ministers to be quite sufficient for the service of the country. There were now 32,670 soldiers in England, and no less than 15,000 on the recruiting service; while, in 1792, there were only 17,000 military in the whole country. Ministers had no pretext whatever for the increase of the military force between 1822 and 1826; and the object of his amendment would be to reduce the military establishment to the standard of 1822. The hon. gentleman concluded with moving, by way of amendment, "That it appears to this House, that the regular military force of the country, exclusive of the troops employed in India, amounted in the year 1S22 to 69,088 men, and that according to the estimate now presented to the House, the same description of force is stated at 87,240 men, being an increase over and above the number employed in the year 1822 of 18,152 men:—That it appears to this House, that no change has taken place either in the foreign relations, or in the internal condition of the country, since the year 1822, which can justify so large an augmentation of the standing army; and that, in order to return, as early as possible, to the military establishment of that period, it is expedient to reduce the number of regular troops for the service of the United Kingdom and the colonies, exclusive of India, to 77,000 men."

Colonel Johnson

seconded the motion.

Lord Palmerston

said, that although he could not agree in the proposition of the hon. gentleman, yet he was not disposed to object to the general principle which he had laid down; namely, that it was incumbent on the House to apportion, as scrupulously as possible, the amount of the military force to the actual wants of the country. Gentlemen, of course, had a right to make use of these anniversary occasions, for the purpose of making their observations, and of recording the opinions which they entertained on these particular subjects; but though the general principle on which they proceeded was good, the results to which it led them were often erroneous. He had most distinctly declared last year the grounds on which he called for an augmentation of 13,000 men; and with very few exceptions the House concurred in the force and justice of the reasons which he then assigned. At that time he explicitly denied that any part of that increase was rendered necessary by the internal state either of this country or of Ireland. The hon. member had asserted, that some gentlemen had concurred in that augmentation, because the state of Ireland seemed to require it. All he could say was, that he did not call for the increase, either then or now, on account of the situation of Ireland. The plain grounds were, the state of the colonial service. But the hon. member said, "If a smaller force was sufficient in 1822, why have you asked for a larger force since?" The fact was, that in 1822 the government anxious as they ought to be to yield to the general feeling of the House and of the country, consented to a reduction, which, in their sober judgment, they felt would be greater than they could adhere to, with a due regard to the proper performance of their duty to the country. Having tried this reduced system for two or three years and finding that it did not succeed, they felt it necessary to declare, that the experiment had failed, and to ask for an augmentation. He did not mean to go into a detail of all the garrisons that were to be supplied with troops. If it were thought necessary, he was ready to do so; and he was persuaded, that after such a statement, any person who was at all acquainted with the number and extent of our colonial possessions, would acknowledge that the force called for was not greater than the necessity of the case required. Much had been said about the force employed in Canada and the West Indies; but if gentlemen would look to the troops employed in those possessions in 1792 they would find the present increase very trifling indeed, when they compared the extent of territory which we possessed formerly with that which we possess now This was peculiarly the case with Canada where population and cultivation had been greatly extended, so that it was necessary to protect a larger line of frontiers.—He would now state the distribution of the military force of this country, and gentlemen would then be enabled to judge whether it was or was not too great. The infantry of the line consisted of eighty-three regiments. Of these, nine were in Great Britain, twenty-three in Ireland, and fifty-one on foreign stations. Besides the nine regiments of the line in this country, there were dépôts for the fifty-one regiments abroad, where recruits and invalids were received. Taking the nine regiments at home at 740 men each, it gave a total of 6,660 men. Supposing 224 men at each of the fifty one dépôts, the total was 11,424 rank and file. Add to these, six battalions of Foot Guards, 4,400 men; staff corps, 300 men; and the gross total would be 22,784 men. Of these 11,424 were not on actual service. They were in depot, and were ready to go abroad when called for. The object in keeping up this part of the establishment was, that the places of non-effective men might be immediately supplied; and by that means, that the regiments abroad should be continued in a perfectly complete and efficient condition. In speaking, therefore, of the force at home, it would be proper to deduct this body of 11,424 men. There were fifty-one regiments abroad, of which twenty were in the West Indies. Now, supposing those regiments thus employed on foreign service to be absent only for ten years, then it became obvious, that there must be sent out from this country annually, seven regiments to foreign stations, while seven others came home from foreign stations. And as one regiment did not quit a foreign station until it was regularly relieved by another, it followed that there were in the course of the year, fourteen regiments neither employed abroad nor in this country, but occupied either with their passage out or home. Taking one station with another, he might say that the reliefs sent out were equal to five regiments, which ought to be deducted from the general establishment for the whole year. If, then, the five regiments thus constantly withdrawn for relief were deducted from nine, it would leave at home, independent of cavalry and of 4,400 guards, a disposable force of only four regiments of the line. He would ask whether this could be considered a greater disposable force than the country ought to possess? If these strong grounds were not sufficient to show the House that the augmentation of last year was necessary, he was very much deceived.

The House then divided. For the amendment 34; Against it 106: Majority 72. The resolutions of the committee of supply were then agreed to.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, visc. Lamb, hon. G.
Bernal, R. Lawley, F.
Blake, sir F. Monck, J. B.
Colborne, N. R. Ord, W.
Corbett, P. Poyntz, W. S.
Davies, R. H. Palmer, C.
Dennison, W. J. Robinson, sir G.
Dickinson, W. Robarts, A. W.
Duncannon, visc. Rickford, W.
Ellice, E. Tomes, John
Evans, W. Webbe, E.
Graham, sir S. Wilson, sir R;
Guise, sir W. Wood, ald.
Heron, sir R. Wyvill, M.
Howard, H. Wharton, John
Honeywood, W. P. TELLERS
Ingleby, sir W.
Kemp, T. Hobhouse, J. C,
Knight, R. Johnson, colonel