HC Deb 19 June 1865 vol 180 cc450-7

said, he must ask the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether he was prepared to take into consideration the great disadvantages to the harmonious co-operation of military authority and Constitutional Government which arose under present circumstances from the absence of the Secretary for War from the House of Commons? Earl Russell had pointed out that the Secretary for War ought to possess a seat in the House of Commons and should be a person of vigorous character. That principle was a sound one, and when it was acted on and Mr. Sidney Herbert and Sir Corne-wall Lewis filled the office the business of the Department was satisfactorily conducted. But at present he did not think that the proper constitutional check existed upon the War Office. The noble Earl who was now Secretary for War bad been an ultra-Liberal in military matters, and on several occasions he had supported Motions which, with his present views, the First Lord of the Treasury would probably regard as almost revolutionary. In 1855 the noble Earl, then Lord Goderich, proposed that promotion should take place from the ranks to a much greater degree than had ever been thought desirable by this House. That Motion was negatived by a considerable majority, of which the noble Lord at the head of the Government was one. In 1856 Earl De Grey supported the Motion of the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir De Lacy Evans) to abolish the system of purchase in the army. Again, in 1858, he acted as teller for a Motion to place the Commander-in-Chief more completely under the responsible direction of the Secretary for War than he now was; and Earl Russell and the present Judge Advocate General supported the same Motion. Was the appointment of Earl De Grey in accordance with what was understood to be the view of the noble Viscount—namely, that the Secretary for War should have very little control over the Horse Guards, which was to he paramount in all military matters? No doubt there was a difficulty in the case, for on the one hand the authority of this House ought to be paramount. Every question of national importance was settled there. Then, on the other side, there was the prerogative of the Crown, which was nothing more than a remnant of that absolute power of the Sovereign which constitutional proceedings for hundreds of years had first checked and then removed; and that remnant rarely made its appearance or was invoked in discordance with the action of that House. That prerogative, however, had now suddenly been called into activity to place all the officers in the service at the arbitrary disposal of the military chief. In the law there were, no doubt, useful fictions — John Doe and Richard Roe had in their time played a very convenient part—and so the prerogative of the Crown, as to making war or agreeing to treaties and matters of that kind, was an extremely convenient, respectable, and loyal fiction; for everybody knew that even in such cases nothing was really done without the intervention of Parliament. The noble Lord was about to go to the country—the existence of the Ministry depended upon the personal popularity of the noble Lord, so much so that it was said the cry of the Liberal party would be, "Palmerston and no Politics," "Palmerston and no Principles." But did the noble Lord wish an addition such as "Palmerston and Martial Law," or "Palmerston and Military Despotism?" He could assure the noble Lord that such additional items to his electioneering programme would be most disadvantageous, as the feeling of society and of the profession was extremely strong upon the subject. There ought to be a responsible Minister of the War Department in that House. He had every respect for the noble Marquess the Under Secretary for the War Department (the Marquess of Hartington), and he did not mean to say that any Gentleman in that House would perform the duties of the office better, but the noble Marquess did not really know what it was he was responsible for. The responsibility of the office had only a Protean existence. The other night the noble Marquess said that he was personally responsible for any statements he made in that House, but they did not affect the Commander-in-Chief or the Secretary for War. Such a declaration left the whole matter in abeyance, and made the responsibility something like thimblerig responsibility. Although the Foreign Minister (Earl Russell) was in the other House his place was well supplied there by the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston), who, of course, was thoroughly acquainted with the foreign policy of his own Government, and who was never taken by surprise; but when they had only a lower authority the House was at once placed in difficulty. Men were now required to invest large sums, amounting in some cases to £8,000, £10,000, and even £15,000, in the purchase of their commissions, and yet they were now for the first time to have hanging over their heads a despotic power which could take away their rights. This was a great constitutional question, and the House ought to see to it. The question was a grave one, for they had a rule which was entirely new, The control of the Crown over the army was to be one of a purely despotic character, without the slightest check. It was to be a control based as much as possible on the Russian system. The prerogative was to be stretched to the utmost, and that which was heretofore in abeyance was to be brought down into actual life, and every officer was to be at the mercy of the military chief and those who surrounded him. The noble Marquess (the Marquess of Hartington) contended that this was justified by the Commission of 1857, but the Commission of 1857 gave no such authority. There was, however, another aspect. We were said to be a nation of shopkeepers, but whether or not we were so we attached great sacredness to pecuniary rights. If a railway took a man's house, or even obstructed his view, the law required an equivalent. If a public servant held an office for a short time, and that office was abolished, he received compensation for the loss of it. But in the military profession a man might invest his fortune in his profession, and if he became obnoxious to one, two, or three of the authorities above him all his property, it appeared, might be arbitrarily swept away. It was said that there had been previous cases in which officers had been thus put upon half-pay, but those were cases in which either there had been a regular trial, or the verdict of society—namely, of the world at large and of that House— had been first pronounced, and then recognized by the authorities. Now, however, a Court of Inquisition resembling the Star Chamber sat in private with closed doors, and no questions could be put to the accuser except such as were approved by the Court; while no report of the proceeding before the tribunal was suffered to see the light, and if moved for in that House they were refused. The whole of the subject required the careful consideration of the noble Lord. It was exciting very serious attention among various classes out of doors. There was not an officer rising to any rank in the army who did not feel that his position was made insecure and his prospects were injured by a precedent to which the noble Lord appeared to lend his sanction. It was a satisfaction to him to have to refer that subject to a Minister of the noble Lord's high and responsible character, because he felt sure that be would give him a consistent and clear answer. He moved— That in the opinion of this House it would be convenient, under present circumstances, that the Secretary of State for War should be a Member of the House of Commons.

MR. VANCE seconded the Motion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it would be convenient, under present circumstances, that the Secretary of State for War should be a Member of the House of Commons,"—(Mr. Darby Griffith,)— instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


Sir, I do not mean to follow the hon. Gentleman through the case of Colonel Dawkins, which has been already sufficiently disposed of, but I shall confine my observations to the Motion which he has made and to that part of his statement which bears upon that Motion. There can be no question that that general principle of human nature, the love of power, affects the Members of this House as much as the rest of the community, and I can quite understand that the hon. Gentleman and others would like to have to exercise that power over every Chief of every Department of the Government sitting in this House. No doubt that might on many occasions be very convenient and satisfactory, but the constitution of the English Government does not admit of it. It is impossible to concentrate all the Heads of Departments in the House of Commons. Some of them must be in the other House, and therefore it must depend in every case upon the particular circumstances which govern the distribution of offices to particular individuals which Heads of Departments should have seats in this House, and which should have seats in the other House. There are certain Members of the Government who must be in this House—for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, There is one Member of the Government who cannot be in this House—namely, the Postmaster General. But, with regard to others, it must depend upon the particular qualifications which Members of the Government have for particular Departments whether they should have seats in this or in the other House of Parliament. But the hon. Member seems to think that unless the Head of a Department has a seat in this House, and is here to answer charges and complaints made against him, his responsibility is diminished, and the constitutional power of this House impaired. Now, in that respect he is entirely mistaken. The constitutional power of this House to investigate, to inculpate, and to judge the conduct of every Member of the Government is exactly the same, whether that Member of the Government happens to have a seat in this or in the other House. It may be more convenient, no doubt, if a serious charge is brought against a Member being the Head of a great Department, that he be here himself to explain and defend himself, rather than that his explanation should be given and his defence made by an Under Secretary. But at all events, in the instance to which the hon. Member at present alludes, I think that those who have the good fortune to hear and see the manner in which my noble Friend the Under Secretary for War acquits himself of his duties, the complete master he makes himself of every subject with which he has to deal, and how fully he understands the whole matter which he has to treat, will agree that he is as good as the Chief of the Department for all purposes of interrogation and explanation as to the conduct of that Department. The hon. Member, if I caught what he said, appeared to suppose that there was some rule by which the Head of the War Department ought to be in this House; but he is entirely in error upon that point—he is in error as to the course of practice. Until the Crimean war the War Department was united with the Colonial Department, and for a long course of time the Minister who was the Head of that combined Department was generally a Member of the House of Lords. Lord Bathurst, who held the office for many years, was in the House of Lords. The Duke of Newcastle also, before the Crimean war; and when the two Departments were separated the Duke of Newcastle remained in the Upper House as War Minister, The Secretary at War was a most limited officer. I know that, because I was for some time Secretary at War myself. The duties of the Secretary at War were to examine the regimental accounts, and he had nothing to do with the general organization or discipline of the army. He had to move the Army Estimates, and was therefore a Member of this House for the same reason that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is also a Member of it. When the Government of which I am a Member was formed, Mr. Sidney Herbert was appointed the head of the War Department on account of his peculiar fitness for the performance of the duties connected with it, and of the attention and study he had bestowed on everything connected with the army during the time that he was Secretary at War. The state of his health unfortunately rendered it necessary to remove him from this House to the House of Lords, in the hope, which unfortunately proved vain, that a change of seat would restore him to health. When we lost Lord Herbert, as he had then become, Sir George Lewis was appointed; we were desirous of bringing back the army to the House of Commons. But a vacancy again happened, and we had to look about and see who was the fittest, in our opinion, to carry on the duty. Lord De Grey had been Under Secretary both to Lord Herbert and to Sir George Lewis, and he had also devoted himself peculiarly to everything connected with the army. It was, consequently, my opinion, and that of my colleagues, that he was the fittest man to take charge of so important a Department, and that his being in the House of Lords formed no valid reason for objecting to the appointment. My noble Friend here is perfectly well able to answer for Lord De Grey, when he says that his statements in this House do not involve any responsibility on the part of his chief; what my noble Friend means is, that, for the accurate statement of facts which have occurred, or transactions that have taken place, the responsibility is upon him, and not on the Head of the Department. But my noble Friend cannot be responsible for the future; for what is to be done the Government are responsible; we all are responsible with the Head of the particular Department, and we are all here to answer for and defend what has been done, and to state our intentions for the future. Therefore, it is a mistake to suppose that because the Head of the Department is in the other House it exempts him or the Government from that full responsibility which attaches to anything which the House of Commons may think it their duty to inquire into and sift in any manner. The hon. Member seemed to think that I proposed a very new and suspicious doctrine the other day when I said that the Crown had the power of dismissing officers from the army without assigning any reason, if it should think fit to do so; and the hon. Member says, "Why, here are officers who have paid money for their commissions, liable to be capriciously sent about their business at the will of the Crown," or rather of the responsible Minister of the Crown, for the Crown we know only acts on the advice of its Ministers, who are responsible to this House and the Crown for the advice which they tender. But I say it is a facility essential to the constitution of this military body that that power should be vested in the Crown, to be exercised by its responsible advisers, at the risk of being condemned if it should appear that they have given their advice improperly and without sufficient grounds. The army could not exist if the Crown were not invested with that power; and every officer who purchases his commission or who goes into the army knows that is the tenure on which he holds the commission that he purchases or receives. And, therefore, no officer can complain that any rule has been applied to him which he had no reason to expect would be applicable when he entered the service. I cannot agree to the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, because it would limit most inconveniently the discretion of those who have to form a Government with regard to the distribution of offices. I will say, fairly, that perhaps it is not in itself desirable that those at the head of the great expending Departments—the army and navy—should both happen to be in the House of Lords. That, however, is a circumstance arising from peculiar accidents, and also from the peculiar fitness of the individuals for the offices which they hold. But I maintain that both with regard to the army and the navy, those who represent the Departments in this House, as far as details go, are just as competent to give explanations to the House as the Heads of those Departments; and that the aggregate Government, the Government as a body, are responsible one for the other, just as the Heads of the Departments impugned are responsible for the Departments which they respectively represent. Therefore, as regards any constitutional check essential to the working of our institutions, I maintain that it is perfectly intact and just as effective whether the Head of the Department is in this House or not. For these reasons I hope the House will not agree to the Motion of the hon. Member. If carried, it would be introducing an entirely new principle; it would embarrass the action of those charged from time to time with forming a new Government, and it would not forward any constitutional purpose, while the sense of Parliamentary responsibility is as strong and valuable under the present system as under the one which he proposes to introduce.


said, he wished to say one word in explanation of the reason why the Government could not grant, as an unopposed return, a Motion which the hon. Member had put down for that evening. The hon. Member asked for the names of all those officers who had been removed or placed on half-pay without a fair trial. It would be extremely invidious to give such a return. There was no reason why officers removed or placed on half-pay should have that punishment aggravated by the fact of publicity. Although, as he had before stated, the cases in which officers had been actually removed and placed on half-pay were very rare, cases had occurred much more frequently in which the officer, rather than be exposed to any steps of the kind, thought it right to make a formal application to be placed on half-pay. It would be very unjust to officers that their names should be given, yet in both cases the ground of interference was the same. His noble Friend at the head of the Government had so completely explained the meaning of the answer which he gave the other night as to the responsibility of the Department that he did not feel it necessary to add anything further upon that subject.


said, that what his Motion asked for was the names of officers whose retirement had been compulsory.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.