HL Deb 17 June 1808 vol 11 cc914-8
Lord Hawkesbury

, on the motion for their lordships' going into a committee on the Local Militia bill, rose and stated, that the principle of this bill went not only to provide for the present exigency, but was intended as a great permanent measure of national defence. In a new system of this kind, it was not expected that it should be devoid of imperfections; but he thought the general policy of the measure could not be denied. It must be confessed, that the present situation of the world was such as demanded all our exertions to place this country in a state of defence which should bid defiance to every attempt that could be made against her. The volunteer system was not one which he should object to as far as it went, but it was a system which could not altogether be depended on, when practically viewed, because its efficacy rested entirely upon the spirit which might prevail at the time, and which might dwindle and evaporate. This con- sideration, therefore, was anticipated by the present bill, as it would go to provide a remedy for such an occurrence; besides, this force, he thought, would be more efficient than even the volunteers. He begged also to inform their lordships, that the present volunteer force was fixed at 370,000, of which upwards of 277,000 were efficient by the returns. When, therefore, the amount of the other forces of the nation was considered, together with the means to be resorted to by the present bill, the country might look with proud confidence to measures which would thus secure its permanent safety. It had been suggested that an armed peasantry would have been better to have recourse to in case of an invasion; but he thought, that however formidable they might be in a mountainous country, they were not so well adapted for our island as a local militia, which was now to be grafted on the volunteers, and intended not only to supply their place, in case of any deficiency arising from them, but was to be a measure to be persevered in whether the country should be at war or in peace, and was so calculated as to be carried into effect without injury to the civil employments of those to whose lot it might fall to give their services.

The Earl of Selkirk

did not rise to oppose going into the committee upon this bill, for he sincerely concurred with the noble secretary of state in the sentiments he had expressed with regard to the principle of the measure. He agreed that the measure should be made as conformable as possible with the civil occupations of the subject: he agreed that, however zealous and active the volunteer fore might be, and for which he gave it ample credit, yet it was not wholly to be depended upon; he regretted, however, that the measure was not of greater extent, and more adapted to general principles. After taking an extensive view of the different local forces of the country, the noble earl proceeded to recommend, according to his own system, that instead of ballot, an enrolment of all the young men of the country, from the age of 18 to 25, should take place; that there should neither be substitution nor purchase, but that it should equally affect every class of his majesty's subjects. He concluded with declaring his intention to move some amendments in the committee.

The Earl of Buckinghamshire

approved most cordially of the measure as grafted on the volunteers, which measure was well suited, in his opinion, to the defence of the country. His lordship then said, that he did not wish to use hard words towards any foreign power, but he could not help remarking, that the atrocities of Buonaparte were great, and that he was sedulously to be watched. For although his armies might be driven out of Spain by the energy of the Spaniards, and by their enthusiasm in defence of their liberties, yet it was not necessarily to follow, that France would cease to be dangerous to this country. But if he was successful in crushing the present ebullitions of the Spaniards, and obtained possession of both Spain and Portugal, he would be truly dangerous to this country; as he could with more facility from those countries attack us on the side of Ireland. He hoped, therefore, that ministers would seriously weigh these circumstances, and be prepared for the event, and could not refrain from expressing his anxious wish that something should be done, by which they could obtain the militia of Ireland for the defence of this part of the united kingdom, by giving Ireland an equivalent defence in return.

The Earl of Moira

had observed with regret, that the volunteers had been undervalued, and that they were said to be badly disciplined; but in that part of the island where he had particular opportunities of knowing what the volunteers were, he was so convinced of their efficiency, that he would cheerfully head them against any force that could be opposed to them by invasion. It was true that they could not be expected to be so well disciplined, or so good, as veteran troops that had been frequently in the field, but there was no comparison to be made between them, and those intended to be raised by the present bill, as he considered the former infinitely superior in every respect. A rumour had prevailed that although the volunteers in Scotland might be good, yet those in the southern part of the island were not so well disciplined; but suppose, for the sake of argument, that it was so, although he did not know it to be true, did it follow that they could not be rendered as efficient if proper measures were to be pursued? He had no doubt that it would be so, but unfortunately no steps were taken to keep up the patriotic spirit among the volunteers; on the contrary, they had been, for some reason or other, cried down.

Lord Hawkesbury

explained, that he did not mean to cast the least reflection upon the volunteers.

Lord Holland

was not averse to the principle of the bill, as far as it proposed a substitution for the volunteers, which he did not approve of as a means of defence; and although the noble secretary of state would not allow that he meant it as a substitution for the volunteers, yet the plan as he stated it, as well as the nature of the bill, went to produce that effect. But although he approved of the principle, yet the manner of carrying it on did not meet his approbation; for he could have wished it had been assimilated more nearly to the ancient militia, or that his right hon. friend's Training act had been carried forward, which, although liable to some objections, might have been rendered far more beneficial and advantageous to the country. Enrolment was far preferable to compulsory means, such as were to be resorted to by the bill; as it was not to be expected, that the men procured by the latter, would act with such energy against an invading enemy, when under the consideration that they were impelled to serve. The noble lord said, he approved of the observations that had fallen from a noble earl on the cross bench, relative to Spain and Ireland; for although a gleam of hope held out the idea that the glorious struggle of the Spaniards would ultimately prove successful as to them, yet it did not follow of consequence that France would not still be formidable; and if she still should remain so, it behoved ministers to conciliate the Irish, without which, all their schemes of defence in this country were illusory.

Viscount Sidmouth

supported the measure, but did not think with his noble friend (lord Selkirk), that an armed peasantry constituted the best force against an enemy; at the same time that he approved of the general principle, he thought that all adults from eighteen to twenty-one should serve without distinction, without exemption or purchase, and this would inspire them with a military ardour and spirit: this he thought would place the country out of the reach of any hostile attack. His lordship wished to see the militia of Ireland so incorporated with the militia of England, that both should become the actual militia of the united kingdom; he would take the power of granting commissions from the lords lieutenant, and vest it in the king, like the regular army, and army of reserve.

The Marquis of Buckingham

supported the bill in general, but objected to that clause which subjected the Local Militia to the mutiny act. He stated his intention of proposing in the committee, an amendment to that clause, by which it should be provided, that no sentence of a court martial for inflicting corporal punishment should be carried into effect, until submitted to his majesty, or to the commander in chief.

Lord Mudgrave

defended the bill from the attack of the noble baron, who had spoke last but two. With respect to the clause to which the noble baron had ascribed such a selfish character, he observed that it merely went to prevent insurances, which had ever been found most mischievous to the individuals who engaged in them. As to what the noble marquis had stated on the operation of the mutiny bill, it must be evident to the house that it was indispensable to preserve a due subordination: if the ranks of the Local Militia were filled from the lowest classes of society, such a check would be absolutely necessary; if they consisted in a great measure of individuals of a superior description, their conduct would be such as to render any exercise of the provisions of the bill superfluous.

The Lord Chancellor

adverted to what had been said on the subject of insurance, and requested noble lords to inquire what had taken place in their own families in these cases. They would find that frequently those of their servants who had not insured were ballotted, while those who had insured, escaped. From this circumstance it might fairly be inferred, that the insurers had some influence in the arrangement of the business.—The house then resolved itself into a committee. The different clauses of the bill underwent a discussion. Eventually they were all agreed to, and the house having resumed, the report was ordered to be received on Monday.