HC Deb 10 December 1830 vol 1 cc985-96
Mr. Grove Price

said, that seeing the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his place, he was anxious to take the opportunity of putting a question to him on a subject of great constitutional importance. He could assure the noble Lord that his question did not arise from any spirit of hostility to him, or from any desire to embarrass the new Government. He would put the same question to the members of the late Government under similar circumstances. Neither was he disposed to put his question in the absence of his hon. and learned friend, the chief legal adviser of the Crown in that House, for' whom, on public and private grounds, he had a great esteem; and for whose consistency of public principle he had the highest respect,—a consistency which, he regretted to say, he had not seen in some others who held that situation before him; but he thought the subject was one so interesting in a constitutional point of view, that it ought not to be postponed. His question was, whether the Government of which the noble Lord formed a part, were aware of the intention of the large masses of the people who had accompanied the deputation to present the Address a few days ago to his Majesty, at his Palace of St. James's, to form the procession which had gone up? He wished to know whether this assem- blage had the deliberate sanction of his Majesty's Ministers, or had been allowed to proceed with their tacit acquiescence. He was desirous to have an answer to this, because it was important to know whether the Government had sanctioned, or only connived at, that which he must say was clearly a violation of the Statute-law of the land. He was aware that it was held in a very high legal quarter that the assemblage to which he alluded was not illegal—and that it was even a highly constitutional assemblage. With every respect for the great legal authority to which he referred, he knew that the opinion of others, for whose great legal knowledge and acquirements those who were acquainted with them had the greatest respect, was very different. He would say, that some of the highest legal authorities in the country took a very different view of this matter as to the point of law. On this account he regretted that this subject had not been introduced by some Member of great eminence, skill, and legal knowledge, and possessing in consequence more weight with the House than he could pretend to. Humble as he was, he had no hesitation in saying that the procession to St. James's Palace, carrying up an Address to the Sovereign, was illegal. The Statute of which it was a violation, was the 13th of Charles 2nd. The necessity for the passing of such an Act at that time was obvious. The country was then smarting under the effects produced by tumultuous assemblages of persons met for the purposes of petitioning. It might be said, that the procession to which he referred had not been a tumultuous assemblage, but, according to the Statute he had quoted, and the clause of which he would read, it was not necessary that a tumult should take place to render the meeting illegal.

An hon. Member here rose to order,—

If the hon. Gentleman wished to ask a very plain question, as it appeared to be, he put it to him whether it would not be the better course to ask it at once, without occupying the time of the House at such length.

The Speaker

said, that the hon. Member who rose to order, was himself not quite in order.

Mr. Grove Price

said, he was anxious to explain the grounds on which he put the question. The clause of the Act of the 13th Charles 2nd, to which he begged to call the attention of the House, was to this effect—that no person or persons whatsoever shall repair to his Majesty, or to both or either Houses of Parliament, on the pretence or for the purpose of presenting any Petition, Declaration, or Address, accompanied by any excessive— not tumultuous—but any excessive numbers; and that the number of persons accompanying the carrying up of any such Petition or Address shall not exceed ten, on pain of fine and imprisonment. The House were aware of the danger against which this Act was intended to guard; and most certainly, under that Act, the procession in question was illegal. It was no matter whether the meeting was tumultuous or not. He argued the question on principle; for if there were no tumult or inconvenience,—and he thought there were both, and that many peaceable and well-disposed persons were considerably alarmed and inconvenienced by such an assembly,—but supposing there were neither, he must still say that it made no difference in the principle for which he contended. There might be no tumult at one such assemblage, or at another, but the admission of the precedent would tend gradually to lead from shade to shade of disturbance, till at last the most serious evils might not only be apprehended, but be really produced by it. This was no new doctrine of his. It was the opinion pronounced by some of the highest legal authorities of which this country could boast. At the time of Lord George Gordon's mob, this Act of Charles 2nd was quoted by Lord Mansfield, who stated that under that Act any large assembly of persons, however peaceable in their demeanour, attending to present a Petition to the Sovereign, or to either House of Parliament, was illegal. This doctrine was acquiesced in by Judges Buller and Ashurst, and it was also clearly laid down by Mr. Justice Blackstone. It was also the doctrine of a writer who was not remarkable for his great attachment to royalty or the high prerogative of Kings. The meeting to which he referred was an assemblage of many thousands of persons, who went up for the purpose of paying a compliment to their Sovereign: but in the procession was introduced that banner, which had been the signal of more crime, bloodshed, rapine, and destruction than any other that had ever been raised in Europe [Cheers and laughter.] He cared not for the cheers of hon. Gentle- men. He appealed to history, which was of much greater authority than their cheers, when he asserted that more scenes of horror, and cruelty, and destruction, had been committed under that banner, than any other that had been raised in Europe. He reported his hope that no defence would be set up for this assemblage on the ground that it had not been productive of any riot or tumult: that made no difference as to its legality. His objection was to the principle; and because he so objected, he wished to know from the noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) how far the assemblage had received the direct sanction or the connivance of Ministers.

Lord Althorp

begged leave in answer to the question of the hon. and learned Member, to state the circumstances of the case as they had come to the knowledge of Government. Very soon after his noble friend, the Secretary of State for the Home Department came into office, he was waited upon by a deputation from the trades' societies, who expressed the great disappointment that had been experienced by the bodies to which they belonged, at not having had an opportunity, after the preparations they had made, of testifying their loyal and dutiful attachment to his Majesty, as they expected to have done had he visited the City; and they added a wish that they might be permitted to present the Address they had prepared at one of the levees. To this his noble friend replied, that there could be no objection, but his noble friend did not understand that it was intended that the deputation should be accompanied by any procession such as that which had taken place, and it was only a day or two before the intended presentation that he learned that it was to be accompanied by the procession of the trades. As soon as that information reached him, he lost no time in consulting with the Magistrates of police and others whose duty it was to attend to the preservation of the peace of the metro-polis. From these gentlemen he learned, that the peace of the City would run less risk of being interrupted by allowing the procession to proceed peaceably, than by prohibiting its assemblage, and they added that if no order to disturb it were issued, they would be answerable for the preservation of the peace, for which they had made sufficient arrangements. The result was as had been predicted. The meeting was most peaceable in its conduct from first to last. Under these circumstances, he must say, that he considered his noble friend acted with great prudence and sound sense in allowing the procession to proceed without interruption. He would at the same time admit that, according to the strict letter of the Act which the hon. and learned Gentleman had quoted, an offence had been committed in the assemblage of such a mass of persons to present an Address to the Sovereign, yet it would be unwise in Government to institute any prosecution for that offence. Such a course would be the most ill-advised and imprudent which any Government could adopt. When the people conducted themselves too with so much good order, it would have been most ill-judged to disturb them then, or to prosecute them afterwards for having assembled, even though such an assembly was, strictly speaking, illegal. At the same time he would admit the very great inconvenience of such assemblies on similar occasions, or of making this case a precedent for future processions for similar objects. It was well known that this Act had often been violated by processions with Addresses, without having any notice taken of their illegality; witness the presentation of addresses from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. [Mr. G. Price: 'These are permitted by Act of Parliament.'] Admitting that to be the case, he would still say in the general proposition of the hon. and learned Member he concurred, and that, according to the strict interpretation of the Act, such assemblies were illegal, though they had not unfrequently been permitted, and under the particular circumstances of the case, it would have been highly imprudent to disturb this one. The hon. and learned Gentleman had alluded to the fact of this assemblage having had amongst their banners a tri-colour flag. He would admit with him that that flag had been the signal of much crime and of much bloodshed, but these characters did not belong to the tri-coloured flag of the present day; and if the assemblage of Wednesday had borne that flag, of which he had not heard until now, no doubt it was not out of any approval of the scenes which had formerly taken place under it, but from admiration of the great and glorious and successful struggle for liberty which had been made under it in France during the last days of July, That was a feeling in which he, in common with the great mass of the people of this country, most cordially joined, and he owned that, with the admissions he had already made as to this meeting, he could not think its character worse, by bearing such a flag as an expression of their admiration of that glorious event.

Mr. Long Wellesley

said, that the spirit of the Act which the hon. and learned Gentleman had referred to was not violated by the meeting; but that though its letter might not have been in strictness adhered to, his Majesty's Government had acted with great wisdom and prudence in allowing the procession to approach his Majesty without interruption in the way it had done; and he must own, that he was rather surprised at the hon. and learned Member quoting an Act, passed at such a period as the time of Charles 2nd, and now almost forgotten, with a view of applying its provisions to times like the present. If he recollected correctly, this Act was passed in the second year of the actual reign of Charles 2nd; and when hon. Members looked back to the spirit of those times, they would find that certain Acts of the same spirit were passed to render the proceedings of the Long Parliament more palatable to the Crown. But though the Act was, in strictness, still the law of the land, yet it was a law which, in the present very different tone and temper of the country, it would be neither wise nor prudent to enforce according to its strict letter. He thought, therefore, Ministers acted the part of sensible and prudent men in not restricting those ebullitions of loyalty on the part of the people, for which they had made such preparations, and which there was no reason to doubt would be expressed in any other than a peaceful and decorous manner. If Ministers had permitted his Majesty's residence to be approached by a tumultuous assembly, they would, no doubt, be held justly responsible to the country; but after what he had that evening heard of the character of the assembly, and after what he had heard in another place on the subject, he must say, that Ministers had acted with wisdom and sound discretion; and their conduct must raise them in the estimation of the country,—in the confidence of which he was happy to know they were gaining ground more and more every day. Before he sat down he would beg to say a word or two as to what fell from the hon. and learned Member who had introduced this subject. The hon. and learned Member, with a want of that quickness of perception which he understood distinguished him elsewhere, had confounded two very important periods in the history of France, and had taken the tri-coloured flag of the present day, as a signal for the horrors which had occurred under it during the first Revolution. No two periods could be more different in the character of the events which distinguished them. For his part he execrated the horrors of the first Revolution as much as any man, but it would be a most unfounded attack on the conduct of those brave men who had immortalized themselves in the late Revolution, to look upon their national flag now as a signal for rapine, bloodshed, and destruction. From what he had recently seen in France, and from what he knew of many of those who were most conspicuous in the delivery of their country, he would say, that the crimes of the first Revolution had been in a great measure expiated by the glorious manner in which the second had been achieved. Let it be also considered, that if the flag of France was borne in a procession here, it was the flag of a nation whose Sovereign we had recognized, and whom, he trusted, we should long continue to call the firm ally of the king of England.

Sir Robert Peel

said, there could be no doubt that a meeting, such as that assembled the other day for the purpose of going up with an Address to the Sovereign, was illegal. Such a meeting might be, as that was, quite peaceable, but still, an actual tumult was not necessary in order to render it illegal. The mobs which assembled under Lord George Gordon, professed that they met for the most peaceable purposes, but, nevertheless, all the authorities of that day, and ever since, had no doubt that they were illegal assemblies. Indeed, it was impossible to consider that an assemblage of 10,000 or 20,000 persons round the doors of Parliament, in times of public calamity, or in a period of great excitement, should not have some undue control on their proceedings, and on this ground such assemblages, however peaceable their professed and even real object might be, were very wisely prohibited. With respect to the case before the House, he was very glad to find that Government looked upon it rather as an exception to the general rule than the rule; for undoubtedly, if such assemblages were to be permitted on the precedent of this, it might lead to serious evils, and certainly would cause very great public inconvenience. He owned he had heard now for the first time, but with great regret, that a tri-coloured flag had been borne amongst the banners of that procession. He heard it with the more regret, as, from the communication that had been made to him by the deputation that had waited upon him before he went out of office, he had understood that nothing of this kind was contemplated. Three persons from the trades' societies had waited upon him, acquainting him with the circumstances to which the noble Lord (Althorp) had already alluded in his statement of what occurred before the noble Lord now at the head of the Home Department. Those three individuals were not of any high rank in life, but he had received and treated them with a respect which he considered very justly due to the good sense and intelligence which they appeared to possess. They stated the disappointment experienced by the trades at the postponement of his Majesty's intended visit to the City, after the expensive preparations they had made in flags and banners to receive him, and they expressed a wish to be allowed to present their Addresses at the levee. He said, there could be no objection to that course, but it must be with the clear understanding that not many of their body should come up with the deputation. On that understanding they went away; and he had no doubt that a similar understanding was entered into with the noble Lord, his successor in office. As to the tri-coloured flag, he would admit that, as the flag of a country whose change of government we had acknowledged, and with which we were in perfect amity, it could not be considered as the representative of any crimes which in former times had been committed under it; but, at the same time, he should wish, that in a procession got up to compliment the Sovereign of this country, there should be no other flag introduced but our own national flags. He would have said the same last year, had the white flag been borne in any similar procession. Still he must hope that there was some mistake in this, and that a flag belonging to one of the trades which were of various colours was mistaken for the tri-colour, for he owned he could not have expected, after what had passed between him and the leaders of this, pro- cession, that they would have sanctioned any thing of this kind.

Mr. Cornewall

said, that he was in Pall Mall on the day in question, and saw the whole procession pass. He could not tell why, but there had been an impression on his mind, while the procession was passing, that he should see the tri-coloured flag among the banners; but it was not there; he could take upon himself to say, that there was no tri-coloured flag, and he should be ready even to depose to that fact in a Court of Justice.

Sir Robert Peel

was now more convinced that there must have been some mistake as to the flag being a tri-colour; but even if it were, it would be unfair to fix upon it as the act of those who managed the procession. In an assembly of 10,000 persons, it was impossible to guard against the introduction of such a flag, by one or two; and it would therefore be unjust to charge it as the act of the whole.

Lord John Russell

said, since the right hon. Baronet viewed the question without any disposition to impute blame to his noble friend at the head of the Home Department, he was ready to admit with him, that, according to the strict letter of the Act, the procession was not legal, and that it ought not to be drawn into a precedent for any future procession on similar occasions, for he acknowledged that such a practice might give rise to serious evils. From the letter and spirit of the Statute, it was clearly illegal that large masses of the people should go up with Addresses, yet it was but justice to the individuals who were assembled on that occasion to say, that not only was their conduct harmless and inoffensive, but praiseworthy, for the perfect good order and decorum which they had observed throughout. Let it also be recollected, that this body did not go up to petition—to ask any thing of the Sovereign—but simply to present an Address expressive of their loyalty and dutiful attachment to his Majesty. As to whether they bore the tri-coloured flag or not, he could not say; but if they had, he could not look upon it as intended as any insult to our own national flag, to which the people of this country were greatly attached, as they were also to the person of the gracious Sovereign under whom they had the happiness to live. The flag, if introduced at all, must have been intended as a complimentary mode of expressing their admiration of the glorious struggle which had so recently been made for liberty under that banner.

Sir Robert Peel

wished to be understood as not giving any opinion as to the policy of permitting this procession; but he would fully admit that, under the circumstances in which the knowledge of it had reached the noble Lord, the Secretary for the Home Department, it would have been impolitic to proscribe the meeting. He had been long enough in office himself to know the cases of difficulty which often presented themselves to the Home Secretary, and he fully admitted the difficulty in which the noble Lord was placed when he heard of the intended procession at so very short a period before the day that it was to take place. No doubt, if sufficient notice had been given, the noble Lord would, as he ought, have prevented it; but with so little notice, and the preparations that had been made, it was, he admitted, acting with prudence to let it proceed undisturbed.

Mr. G. Lamb

said, that it was only the day before the intended procession that the Home Secretary was made acquainted with it, and that by having a placard brought to the office, noticing the intention of the trades to go up to the Palace. Under these circumstances, he thought it would have been the height of imprudence, not to say downright madness, to have prevented the procession, as it could not have been done without resorting to force. He would only add, with reference to what fell from the hon. and learned Gentleman, as to the conduct of the people, that their peaceable demeanour, after they had come up in the expectation of obtaining a sight of their Sovereign, and of receiving an answer to their Address, was entitled to great praise, and in the present period of excitement it more fully proved the loyalty and attachment to their Sovereign of the people of the metropolis. On the subject of the right of petitioning, he might be allowed to say a word. It was a right in which the strict letter of the law was every day violated without a word being said about it. For instance, petitions were presented to and received by that House, praying for reform and other changes, and yet by law no petition could be presented for any alteration in Church and State signed by more than twenty persons, unless it was signed by the Lord Mayor, or by the Magistrates in Quarter Sessions, or by some other potentates of that description.

The House then resolved itself into a Committee of Supply.

Lord Althorp

said, he should at present merely move "That it is the opinion of this committee, that a sum not exceeding: 100,000l. be granted to his Majesty towards satisfying the Annuities and Pensions payable out of the Consolidated Fund or Civil List, deficient from the demise of the late King up to the 5th of January, 1831." As the House would have ample opportunity for investigating the subject immediately after the recess, he did not anticipate that any objection would be made to the present Motion, and should therefore sit down without offering any further observations.

Mr. Goulburn

said, it was not his intention to oppose the proposition of the noble Lord, for although it was a departure from former precedents, existing circumstances sufficiently accounted for the deviation. On all other occasions it had been the first act of the Legislature, on the demise of the Crown, to make provision for the Civil List. He was not surprised at the proposed deviation from established custom, but could not help regretting it, as the precedent might possibly prove inconvenient hereafter. It appeared to be most for the interest of all parties, that the question should be brought to a conclusion as soon as circumstances would admit. Under this feeling, he repeated, he did not mean to give any opposition to the motion just made by the noble Lord.

Lord Althorp

concurred with the right hon. Gentleman in thinking that it would have been more desirable to make an arrangement for the provision of the Civil List at the commencement of the Session, but the late changes having been effected so recently, it was out of the power of his Majesty's present Ministers to make themselves masters of the details in a manner which would enable them so soon to propose the Civil List on their own responsibility. Had they attempted to do so, they would not have acted consistently with their duty to the public. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to apprehend danger from the precedent, but all precedents were to be considered in connexion with the circumstances which induced them, and he had no hesitation in saying that the future recurrence of similar circumstances would warrant the adoption of a similar line of conduct.

Vote agreed to.

A Resolution, "That it is the opinion of this Committee, that a sum, not exceeding 750,000l., be granted to his Majesty, towards defraying the interest on Exchequer-bills," was also adopted nem. con.

The House resumed, the report to be received on Monday.

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