HC Deb 06 February 1855 vol 136 cc1295-309

Sir, I have to state to the House that my noble Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has received a Commission from Her Majesty to undertake the formation of a Government. Under these circumstances he has requested me to move that the House at its rising should adjourn till Thursday next, not thinking that it would be necessary for the House to meet tomorrow at twelve o'clock; but I have been informed since I came into the House that it would be attended with great inconvenience if the House were to adjourn over to-morrow. I understand that there is some business, not likely to occupy much time, which it is desirable should be transacted to-morrow; and, therefore, I have to propose that the House at its rising should adjourn as usual till to-morrow at noon.


I do not know, Sir, whether the course which I am about to take is in accordance with the custom, or will be in accordance with the wishes, of this House, but I think, at least, my justification may be found in the very anomalous, and, I may add, the very disastrous state of public affairs at the present moment. For it is impossible, I think, to imagine a state of things more disastrous than the present, both for the prospects and the character of the country. It is now more than a week since a Vote of this House compelled the resignation of the Ministry upon the ground of their inadequacy for the duties which devolved upon them—that incompetency having been admitted even by portions of the Ministry itself. Now, I would ask, what has occurred during the time that has elapsed since the Vote that compelled the resignation of office by the late Government—time, every hour of which is invaluable, and upon the proper distribution of which may depend the lives of thousands of our countrymen in the East? If we are rightly informed—I am speaking, of course, from public rumour, but when we have nothing else but public rumour to guide us, I believe that is a sufficient ground on which to offer a few remarks to the House—if, I say, we are rightly informed, we know that in the first instance the Earl of Derby was commissioned by Her Majesty to form a Ministry. It is rumoured that the Earl of Derby made the attempt, and that he applied in the first instance to the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department. That noble Lord is stated, in the first instance, to have assented to the arrangements proposed to him; but the noble Lord is stated subsequently, and very shortly afterwards, to have declined those arrangements to which he originally assented. The noble Lord will doubtless be able at the proper time to explain to the House and to the country a course of conduct which, if correctly reported, savours somewhat of vacillation. We hear it further stated that Lord Derby, upon learning the disinclination of the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department to join him, found it impossible to form a Government with which he could hope to obtain the confidence of a majority of this House. He therefore abandoned the task which he had undertaken and gave up the attempt. We then hear that the noble Lord the Member for the City of London (Lord John Russell) was called upon by Her Majesty to attempt to form a Government. We are told that the attempt on the part of that noble Lord failed after a very few hours; and certainly, after the proceedings of the last few days, nobody can feel surprise that public men should hesitate before they consented to become the associates of the noble Lord in the labours of office. We are then told that the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department was sent for by Her Majesty, and that he has been for some days attempting—but, so far as we know up to the present time, attempting without success—to form an Administration. And we are further told—speaking still from public rumour—that the difficulty which the noble Lord has encountered arises from the determination of certain public men to force a preponderance of their own party into the formation of the new Government. Now, I would ask if this is a fitting or a creditable state of things for the country to find itself in at such a time? Is it right that we should be listening night after night to personal recriminations between noble Members of the other House and noble Lords and hon. Gentlemen in this House, and that public men should be employed in forcing upon others a preponderance of their own party interests, whilst public affairs are in this dangerous—and I may repeat disastrous—condition? It is impossible to conceive anything more discreditable or more disadvantageous to the country than the delay which has occurred during the last few days in the formation of a Ministry capable of carrying on the affairs of the country. I have been induced to make these remarks in the hope that, having done so, others who have far more weight with this House than I have, may be induced to take up the subject, and to call upon this House for an expression of opinion, which may lead to a better state of things, and to some onward progress in the negotiations that are now going on for the formation of a Government, so that the country may no longer waste such valuable time as that which has been lost during the past eight or nine days. I need not remind the House that the lives of thousands of our countrymen may depend upon every hour that is misemployed at the present moment. I trust that an expression of opinion from this House will lead to the discontinuance of a delay which is fatal in every respect, and that we shall no longer see the country brought to discredit by the continuance of a state of things which must weaken its character both at home and abroad.


Sir, I may appeal to the experience of the older Members of this House if the course which the hon. Gentleman has followed upon the present occasion is not altogether without precedent. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his decided opinion that the present state of the country is one that calls for explanation, and I have no doubt that when the proper time arrives for asking that explanation it will be given by those whose duty it may be to do so, and that, moreover, at the earliest possible moment. I apprehend, however, that in the present posture of public affairs, it is not fair to call upon the Members of the late Government, who are certainly not responsible for what has occurred, to explain the reasons why so much time has been consumed in the formation of an Administration. When the new Ministers, whoever they may be, take their places in this House, then will be the proper time to ask for explanations, and I think I may assure the hon. Gentleman that an opportunity will be given to him to repeat the statement which he has just made to the House.


Sir, the right hon. Baronet has entirely misunderstood the remarks of the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck). My hon. Friend did not venture to ask for an explanation of a thing which, I suppose, cannot be explained; but he addressed a few practical and sensible observations to the House, in the hope that the House might express an opinion which would be valuable in accelerating that which, if the House do not interpose, does not seem likely ever to approximate to a satisfactory termination. Perhaps, after all, the only thing possible to be done, as you have passed a Bill to import a foreign army, is to bring in a foreign Ministry also.


Sir, when the right hon. Baronet the President of the Board of Control refers to precedent, he must allow me to say that the position in which this country stands at present is quite unprecedented. He has alluded to the want of experience of the hon. Member for West Norfolk; but my hon. Friend sat in this House during the years 1853 and 1854, and, in common with every other Member of the House, he recollects that, during the whole of the unfortunate Session of 1853, when questions were asked in this and the other House, which, if they had been properly answered by a Government capable of doing its duty, would in all probability have obviated the war in which we are now engaged, the occupants of the Treasury benches refused to answer them, and took refuge in silence. Further, if the questions which have been so repeatedly asked by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Layard) had led to a debate during the last Session of Parliament, I do believe that this war either would not have occurred, or it would have been conducted with vigour and success by an efficient Ministry—a Ministry fully competent to the conduct and prosecution of the war. I think my hon. Friend the Member for West Norfolk was quite right in the course he has taken; and when he asks this House to express an opinion upon the present position of public affairs, he asks nothing more than what the whole country expects of its representatives. The general feeling out of doors is, that the chief of the late Government was a mere caput mortuum, totally unfit to conduct the war. He and his colleagues perpetually told us during his administration not to ask questions, and called upon us to pass a vote of censure upon them. We did no such thing, but we passed a vote of inquiry upon the very just motion of the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck)—an inquiry into the sufferings of our brave soldiers in the Crimea. The Government chose to say that that vote was not complimentary to themselves, and construed it into a vote of censure. So be it; but is it to be said here that the voice of the country is to be silent? Are we to have cast back upon us the very men whose incapacity, according to the most influential of their late colleagues, has brought about the present disastrous state of things? Are we to be told that we are not following a constitutional course—that we are hampering the Queen in her choice of Ministers—because, having waited for more than a week, at length our patience has become exhausted, and we ask who are to be our rulers? Not that I believe that the country has not gone on just as well during the past week as during the last two years. I think, however, that this House and the country should express their opinion before the statesman who is charged with the formation of a Government has fixed upon the men whom he is to place in office. If I saw here the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Oxford (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) I should be disposed to apply to him some observations suggested by the remarks which fell from him last night; but, in his absence, I shall not further trespass upon the House, and have only to say, in conclusion, that I trust this House will express a very decided opinion upon the situation in which we have been placed during the last eight or nine days, and upon the manner in which a small section of statesmen are opposing their own importance to the welfare of the country and the safety of our army in the Crimea.


I confess, Sir, that in the present posture of public affairs there is no consideration that bears so strongly on my mind as a desire that this House at least should, by its demeanour and conduct, hold that position in the estimation of the country which is of the utmost consequence at all times, but more especially at a moment like the present. I am far from saying that the time may not come when it may be the duty of this House in the most constitutional manner, by an Address to the Crown, to express its opinion that as speedy a termination as possible should be put to the present situation of affairs. But I am of opinion that the character of this House will not be raised, or that the termination of the negotiations which are now in progress will not be promoted in any degree, by a discursive discussion of this kind. If this House does interfere at all, let it do so with dignity, with effect, and upon due notice given. I do not say that, if the present situation of affairs is protracted even for a few days, it may not be our duty to interpose in a proper manner—and I address myself to Members on all sides without distinction—but in the meantime I do implore the House not, by listening to public rumours, or what appears in newspapers—not, by attempting to make speeches in favour of this or that set of candidates for office—not, by exhibiting a spectacle of this kind to the country, to take a course which would not promote to any extent any public object, but which, on the contrary, would have the effect of exhibiting this House in a discreditable and humiliating posture before the public at large. But the principal inducement I had to rise was to implore the House not to allow itself to be led into a discussion of this kind. At the same time I by no means wish to deny—on the contrary, on a proper occasion I should be ready to assert and vindicate—the right, nay, the duty, of this House, if the present state of things be long protracted, to interfere, by an Address to the Crown if necessary, in order that an end might be put to so injurious and inconvenient a delay. But I put it to the good sense and good feeling of every Member of this House whether discussions of this kind are calculated to do us credit or promote any useful or beneficial object. I do not wish to express any opinion upon what has occurred. The time will come when, with responsible Ministers sitting in this House, we shall be entitled to require and receive explanations; but we must wait till that time arrives, and not more than waste our time by entering into a discussion of this kind at the present moment.


said, he could not agree with the right hon. Gentleman, for he thought the House was already in a very humiliating situation, and the country too. What had they been doing here but wasting their time for several days past, pretending to govern the country, whilst the Gentlemen who were seated on the Treasury benches were no Government at all. The fact was that the country believed they were waiting for two or three aristocratic families to adjust their differences before they could form a Government. That was what the people were saying; and they were also beginning to say that it should not last much longer. They were inquiring, and they would soon know, whether there were not men enough to govern the country as well as it had been governed during the last thirty years, without entering the charmed circle of these aristocratic relationships. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen might shut their eyes to these facts; but if they went into the world and heard the remarks that were everywhere made, they would soon be convinced that was the feeling of the people at this moment. They thought that time was wasted and that the existing state of things was injurious and disgraceful to the country; and if it continued much longer, it would end in the disgrace alike of the Government and that House too.


Sir, I am very reluctant to interfere in the present discussion; but sitting here as an independent Member, caring for neither one party nor another, and having only the interests of my coun- try in view, I must say that I am unable to perceive the justice of the observations of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Taunton (Mr. Labouchere) that this House is not properly employing itself in directing its attention to the subject introduced by the hon. Member for West Norfolk. I cannot, I confess, look at the present state of things without serious alarm. agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz) that it is anything but satisfactory to the country. I, for one, do express an opinion that these things have now gone too far, and that it is time for the people to take the matter into their own hands. It is not for the people of England to sacrifice themselves to the differences of one or two aristocratic families. These families must settle their differences among themselves; for day after day cannot pass in this way without our knowing whether there is any more prospect of forming a Government now than there was eight days ago when Ministers were compelled to resign office upon that which they regarded as a vote of censure, and which I for one in giving my vote intended should be a censure. Is the House, I ask, to meet in this way day after day only to pass the Motion for adjournment? and is this to pass in one of the most disastrous contingencies in which the country was ever known to be? To-day, again, we assembled in the hope of receiving the announcement from the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department, that he had succeeded in forming a Government. I, for one, came in the expectation that the noble Lord would announce to us either that he had or that he had not been successful in his endeavours; and I think the time is now come when it is incumbent that that announcement should be made one way or the other. I beg, therefore, to ask those Gentlemen sitting on the opposite side of the House, who represent the late Government, whether at this moment there is any reasonable prospect of a Government being formed. To-morrow, it is said, we are to meet for a few minutes and then adjourn, and on Thursday, again, the same proceeding would possibly be repeated. Where is the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Why is he not here in his place? Is he the cause of the difficulties the noble Lord has to encounter? What are those difficulties? Why cannot those Gentlemen on the opposite side settle their differences among themselves? If there cannot be a man found to undertake the Government of the country, why do they not give it up; and if there really can be found such a man, if a Government really can be formed, why do they not announce it? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Taunton thinks that we ought to go on acquiescing in the present state of things for the present; and that if the present state of things should continue too long, he will then agree in an Address to the Crown to put a stop to it. I say, Sir, that the present state of things has gone on too long already, and it is past endurance that it should be continued day after day as it now is. There is, however, another matter which is independent of any Government, and which I counsel the House to proceed with. This House, on Monday last week, by a majority of 157—the numbers being 305 to 148—resolved to appoint a Committee to inquire into the present state of our army in the Crimea. Why should not the House at once proceed with that matter? Why should we not ask the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck) to proceed with the appointment of his Committee? Let it be proceeded with at once, let it sit, and let us find out on whom the blame of all the disasters that have befallen the army in the Crimea is to be thrown. I myself, although I have not sat very long in this House, know something of what is due to the House and to the nation in a case like the present. It is now forty-eight hours since the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department was called upon to form a Government. Is he to form a Government out of those elements which have been so condemned by such a majority of the House of Commons? I believe what the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer said yesterday was true, that we did not attach particular blame to particular individuals, Members of the late Cabinet; but that individually and collectively we condemned the whole Cabinet. It was not intended by me, and I do not think it was intended by hon. Gentlemen sitting on this side of the House, to lay any particular blame on the noble Earl, the head of the late Government, or on the noble Duke the Minister of War, or upon any other individual Member of the Cabinet; but we condemned them all, en masse, on account of the blundering nature of their proceedings. I may be permitted, perhaps, to say a word with reference to what fell on a recent occasion from the noble Lord the Member for the City of London. The noble Lord desired to take credit to himself, inasmuch as he had disapproved of this matter at a particular time, thinking that something else should have been done at another time. I listened very attentively to all that fell from the noble Lord on that occasion, and it appeared to me that, whatever might be the disasters that had arisen from the mismanagement of the war by the late Government—upon that noble Lord's head as much as upon any other must fall the blame of those disasters, because if the appointment that was made of a War Minister in the month of June last did not then meet with his approbation, it was his duty to have then made known his disapprobation and prevented the appointment taking place. It seems to me that the noble Lord need not then have scrupled to make known his objections, especially after what we know of the squabbles that have taken place in that Cabinet. To the Duke of Newcastle, the late Minister of War, I give all credit for having done everything that it was in his power to do, I give the noble Duke credit for his great industry and application to business, at a time, too, when he was deserted by all his colleagues, and left alone at his post to manage this war by himself, while they were amusing themselves in all parts of the country. I am fully disposed to give the noble Duke credit for having exerted himself to the utmost; but I blame him for his rashness in having undertaken an office for which he had had no previous experience, and to which he ought to have had diffidence enough to know that he could not bring the qualities necessary for a proper administration of its duties, and I also blame the noble Lord the Member for the City of London for having acquiesced in that appointment. The noble Lord says that in the month of November it occurred to him that it would be for the good of the country that the office of Secretary for War should be transferred to the hands of the Secretary of State for the Home Department. Now I cannot understand why in the month of June last when the noble Lord the Member for the City of London knew so well that all through the Peninsular War the office of Secretary at War was held by the noble Lord the Home Secretary; that that noble Lord during all that time was in constant communication with the Duke of Wellington, and that he was also Secretary at War at the time of the battle of Waterloo; one wonders that in June last these ideas should not have presented themselves to the mind of the noble Lord. I hope the House will excuse me these observations. I rose for the purpose of impressing upon the House my desire that they should not tolerate this state of things any longer; and if the noble Lord who has been entrusted with the formation of a Government does not shortly come down to the House, and announce to us that he has been successful in forming a Ministry, I trust that some influential Member of this House will take the matter in hand, and that an humble Address will be moved to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty to put an end to the existing state of things. I trust I may be allowed to make one more observation. There is now, for the first time, presented to this country this most extraordinary state of things. In making these observations, Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House may suppose that I am actuated much more than I am by party motives; but I am not at all actuated by any such motives, for I have no party objects to attain. It is admitted on all hands that there is in this House a party that is very mach larger than any other, large enough almost to constitute a majority of the House, and yet the fact is that that party is to be excluded from any share in the Government of the country. [Ironical cheers.] I am not surprised at this manifestation of feeling. I know the readiness of hon. Gentlemen to attribute my reference to this subject to a desire to promote party politics; but I have no party object to promote, and no personal seeking in the matter. But hon. Gentlemen cannot gainsay the justice of my assertion, that there is a great effort being made on that side of the House to get possession of the reins of Government, to the exclusion of those by whom properly those reins should be held. Hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House seem to have got an idea that, because by certain combinations among themselves they can get certain aristocratic families to unite together and to come forward, and therefore they, although in a minority in this House, are to assume all the offices of Government to the exclusion of the majority of the House. To what are we to attribute this lamentable state of things? This state of things, Sir, is to be attributed to that lamentable breaking up of political parties which took place in 1845 and 1846. I, for one, occupying at that time a humble position, but observing all these things with minute atten- tion—I saw clearly that that breaking up of political parties must lead to that state of things in the midst of which we now live, when it has become all but impracticable to carry on the Government of the country on Parliamentary principles. Look at the present state of things—here is the most powerful party in the country, and because we have not an absolute majority over all the other parties combined, therefore we can have no voice in the management of the affairs of the country. On the opposite side of the House is to be seen a very small party, numbering not more than thirty or forty Members. They are the relies of that great party which was broken up in 1845–6; and in consequence of their having belonged to that great party they think themselves entitled to take all the prominent positions of the Government to themselves. When the noble Lord the Member for the City of London found that he could not have all the power to his own party, he took to himself credit for taking as much of it as to make the giving up of the rest a matter of very small moment. Now, that is the state of things to which that party of thirty or forty has arrived. Refusing to act with that old party, who are their natural allies, and allying themselves with individuals with whom they cannot act on satisfactory principles, they stand alone between two parties, and yet it is to that party that it now devolves to govern the country. But to confide the Government of the country to individuals condemned by an overwhelming vote of this house, I pronounce to be unconstitutional. I go further, and I declare that to attempt to reconstruct a Government with such elements will fail, and will be found to be an attempt which never can succeed.


Sir, I am not going to follow the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite through all the party politics he has submitted to the House. I rise on this occasion to look, not to party interests, but to the interests of the public, and to ask whether the continuance of this conversation at this time can be of any service to the country. I entirely agree with those who have expressed their deep regret at the position in which the country is placed at this moment. We all regret the period that has elapsed, and the difficulty that has occurred in giving a new Ministry to the country; but if there is any difficulty more than another that can be thrown in the way of the formation of a new Ministry, it must be the continuance of a discussion such as that in which we are now engaged. There is absolutely no Government at this present time—when it is said that every hour may be of importance to our army in the East, when the sufferings of our troops require all the attention of the Government; and the country with almost one voice points to one Member of this House as having the power to form a Government which will command the confidence of the nation. Now, we have been informed by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth (Sir G. Grey) that the noble Lord is at present engaged in the formation of such an Administration, and there is no Member of this House, I apprehend, who entertains the slightest doubt but that he will succeed in his task. Is this, then, I confidently ask, a convenient moment to enter upon a discussion of this nature, which can but embarrass his course and increase his difficulties. I therefore appeal to the House whether it will not be convenient to come at once to an agreement to the Motion for adjournment. If this period of interregnum should last to an unreasonable extent, it will then, of course, be the duty of this House to vote an Address on the subject to Her Majesty; but, in the meantime, let us not be accused by the nation of throwing difficulties in the way of the very man the nation has selected as the most likely to preserve their confidence.


I rise, Sir, on this occasion on account of my having been particularly alluded to by the hon. and learned Member for Wallingford (Mr. Malins). Before I address myself to the matter personal to myself, I will make one observation with reference to what has fallen from him. The hon. and learned Gentleman complains that that party which constitutes very nearly a majority of this House has been excluded from the formation of a Government. That is, I think, a most incorrect way of stating the facts of the case, for that party have been called upon to form an Administration, and have confessed their inability to do so. That inability has been confessed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck), who says that they were called upon by their leader, and that he had since declared he had not been successful in his endeavour to construct a Cabinet. Therefore, it cannot be said to the House that to us belongs the blame of creating this inability. The hon. and learned Gentleman says he thinks the House ought now to proceed with the Committee I originally moved for. I think I owe it to this House to explain why I have not ere now moved for the appointment of that Committee. In naming that Committee, I naturally was led to wish that it should attain the confidence of the country. For that purpose I was of course induced to wish some of the leading Members of this House to form a part of that Committee; but while the House is without a Government I did not know who should form the Government, and, therefore, I was totally unable to perform an essential part of my duty, as some of the Members who might be placed on that Committee might also be selected to form part of a new Administration. I hope the House will allow me to say one word more. It has fallen from the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth (Sir G. Grey) that upon the noble Lord who is called by courtesy the Secretary of State for the Home Department has fallen the task of forming a new Administration, and it has been stated by the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Norfolk that he has found some difficulty in the performance of that duty. Now, if I know anything of this House or of the country, sure I am that that noble Lord will not feel any difficulty about the matter. The country has chosen him as the head of the new Government, and upon the country I am confident he may rely. If anybody should throw difficulties in his way, it is in his Lordship's hands to put aside that difficulty, and say to the persons so attempting to create it, "Stand aside —I will put into office those who, if they have attained the attention and confidence of the country, will continue to enjoy that attention and confidence, and who, if they have not yet attained the confidence of the country, will, through me, attain it. I will do for the country that which the country demands I should do. I shall form an Administration at once, regardless of party considerations, and regardless of personal considerations." If the noble Lord acts upon these principles, sure I am he will obtain the confidence of the country, and obtaining that, he may be content.


; Sir, I have only one word now to say, and that is, that, after what has fallen from the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir G. Grey), I do not wish to press the matter further upon the House. What I thought it my duty to ask was, an expression of opinion from the House on this subject; and I did so ask an expression of opinion because I believed that to be the only means of putting a stop to a state of things which, if I am correctly informed, is not creditable to the public men of this country, and will be disastrous to the fortunes of the nation.

The House adjourned at half after Five o'clock.