HL Deb 27 January 1818 vol 37 cc5-17

The Prince Regent's Speech having been read by the lord chancellor and also by the reading clerk at the table,

The Earl of Aylesford

rose to move an Address of Thanks. There could, he said, be but one opinion upon the melancholy events with which the Speech had commenced. Who was there that did not sympathize in the sufferings of our venerable king; or who that did not mourn over the untimely loss of the Princess Charlotte, whose amiable life, whose exalted virtues, whose sweetness of disposition, and whose excellent understanding, had endeared her to the nation in general. On her decease, addresses of condolence had poured into the throne from every part of the country, thereby evincing the deep sympathy of the people; and their lordships could now, by their expression of sorrow, complete the picture of national grief. But amidst the gloom with which they had been overwhelmed, the state of the country afforded topics of proud congratulation, and particularly as compared with its former condition. The revenue had been constantly improving, commerce had revived, and the tone of public feeling had proportionably ameliorated. It was but fair to attribute some part of this happy change to the wise measures of parliament, which had counteracted the schemes, of the disaffected. In reviewing our relations with foreign powers, there were no circumstances of greater interest than the treaties concluded with Spain and Portugal, for the final abolition of the slave trade. The exertions of this country with respect to that point had been most exemplary; but the interests of humanity required their completion, an object which the present treaties were likely to effect. The only topic which remained for him to notice was, the lamentable deficiency of places of worship throughout the country, as compared with the increased population. To this subject it became the House to lend their attention. In former reigns money had been voted by parliament for the erection of churches; and when the importance of the subject was considered, he felt confident 'that they would not, in the present day, be found less willing to contribute to such a work than on any former occasion. The noble lord concluded by moving an Address to the throne, which was, as usual, an echo of the Speech.

Lord Selsey,

in rising to second the Address, said, that he should occupy the attention of the House but for a short period; feeling that, after the able speech they had just heard, he should have the less occasion for dwelling on the topics before the House. Upon the melancholy loss which the country had recently sustained, there could be no difference of opinion—an event so deplorable demanded all their warmest sympathies. Only a few weeks had rolled away since all classes of society had looked forward with hope and joy to the birth of a prince, who would perpetuate the line of the illustrious family which now swayed the destinies of the empire. This hope and this joy had suddenly given way to the deepest affliction; and who that considered the merits, the eminent virtues of that amiable princess, did not feel that as long as virtue continued to hold a place in the estimation of mankind, the loss of the princess Charlotte would be deeply, warmly, and sincerely lamented; and he felt a sad and solemn satisfaction in thus publicly offering up his humble tribute of sorrow at the melancholy event that had blighted the fair rose of the state, and had untimely snatched away the best hopes of the country Turning from this distressing subject, the country presented abundant cause of congratulation, and particularly in the contrast of its present condition with what it had been when their lordships had last been called together. The country had at that time been threatened with anarchy and rebellion; commerce had become stagnant in all its channels; and a deep and settled gloom and consternation hung over the country, of a darker character than any they had experienced during the long course of the preceding hostilities. To this, however, a triumph had succeeded, a triumph not indeed accompanied by the "pride, pomp, and circumstance of war," but one wherein wisdom and moderation had counteracted the desolating spirit of revolution, crushed the seeds of anarchy, and reestablished peace, confidence, and tranquillity. The noble lord then alluded to the increase in the revenue, as mentioned in the Prince Regent's Speech, and attributed the happy change in every part of the country to the wise precautionary measures adopted by government. But if the state of domestic affairs was thus consolatory, there was no less cause for exultation in reviewing our relations with foreign states. Alluding to the treaties for the suppression of the slave trade, concluded with Spain and Portugal, the noble lord commended the personal exertions made by the illustrious person at the head of the government in attaining that object, and in terminating a traffic alike revolting to the feelings of humanity, and disgraceful to any state professing the pure doctrines of Christianity. With respect to the deficiency in the number of places for public worship, the fact was too notorious to require explanation. In support of the urgent necessity, of correcting that deficiency, there was no necessity to adduce arguments. Many parts of the kingdom, he lamented to say, were utterly destitute of any means of acquiring moral instruction, which as had been well observed in the Speech from the throne, was the only sure foundation of national prosperity.

Earl Stanhope

said, that in rising to express his sentiments on the present state of the country, nothing was farther from his intention than to object to the Address which had been proposed; but as the Speech from the throne was generally understood to be an exposition of the state of public affairs, the debate upon it naturally afforded a favourable opportunity of offering an opinion on the political condition of the empire. The noble earl said he was not enrolled under the banners of the executive, and did not receive or adopt with implicit faith every statement that ministers might choose to make. In public life, he had no other object than the happiness and prosperity of his country. But if he was ever unwilling to consider the narrow interests, or serve the purposes, of a party, he should at the present moment, more than ever, condemn a systematic opposition to government, when principles were making hourly progress which threatened the extinction of social order. Whatever opinion might have been entertained at a former period respecting the measures that had been pursued for the suppression of this spirit of anarchy and insubordination, let us at length be open to conviction: let us admit, that under the present administration these principles, so dangerous to society, have been more effectually opposed than ever. Let us admit that their measures have ensured the peace and happiness, the tranquillity and security of the country. Let us admit, that his majesty's ministers have steered the vessel of the state in safety through a storm unparalleled in difficulty and danger. But, though the political ocean was now in some measure tranquillized, the horizon was far from being clear; the troubled waves of faction still continued to roll, and dangers were yet to be apprehended. This he felt it necessary to state, in consequence of reports that had reached him from various quarters. If it were true, that the king of France reigned in the hearts of his subjects as much as some had represented, what evil could result from setting at liberty the state prisoner at St. Helena? In that case, he must, on landing in France, only meet with his own destruction, and the event would only tend to strengthen the Bourbons on the throne. But his confinement there was a tacit admission that the affections of the French for their king could not be depended on, and that the liberation of Buonaparte would but consolidate the power of democracy. If this was true, it was clear that the government of France, as far as it could rely on its own means for support, did not rest on any solid foundation. He did not speak with reference to the present administration of that country, the measures they were pursuing, or the opinions they might entertain: he spoke of facts notorious to the whole world. It was notorious that Louis 18th had been placed on his throne by the bayonets of foreign armies; that he had twice entered his capital in the rear of troops who had conquered the country he was destined to govern, and that he now only retained his throne by the protection of the sword. On this head, we had been told, that we had no right to interfere with the internal government of another nation; but he should say, that they who had a right to the greater, had also a right to the less. France had been twice conquered, and the allies had, therefore, a right to dispose of her in what manner they pleased. The safest policy they could have pursued would have been to have partitioned France, not for the sake of adding to the allied powers, but of erecting new and separate dynasties. The best mode of division would have been that stated in Caesar's Commentaries—a division into three parts. But, if any individual was to be placed on the throne of the country as it stood, certainly the allies could not have made a more judicious choice than Louis 18th, not to weaken their power or deprive them of the means of defence, but to "abate their pride, assuage their malice, and confound their devices;" at the same time to inflict a sort of chastisement for their crimes, and afford something like a security to the rest of Europe. The very reasons which rendered Louis 18th unacceptable to France, were those of all others which ought to have weighed with the allies, and rendered him acceptable to them: he was obliged to the allies for his throne, and depended on them almost entirely for support; common gratitude, therefore, would prevent him from making any attack on their peace, or the system they maintained. That peace they had nobly conquered, and of that peace the best guarantee was Louis 18th. His government could not be destroyed without striking at the root of social order in every surrounding nation. A revolution there would not only be attended with calamity to France and the Bourbons, but to every part of Europe; and it would be as impossible to predict what the extent of its effect might be, as it was in the year 1793. It was obvious that, in the event of a change, the man who, by force or fraud, should attempt to gain the supreme dominion of the French people, would endeavour to effect his purpose by proposing that which was dearest to the heart of every Frenchmen—foreign conquest and foreign dominion: and we should then see their armies again devastating the face of Europe, and pursuing the same course of rapine and aggression that had marked their progress during the last twenty years. Had their lordships sufficiently considered the character of that people?—a people the most unprincipled* on the face of the globe—a people who had pursued the career of slaves and robbers, and were now the most abject of the human race. If the calamities of the last twenty years were to be renewed from the same quarter and to the same degree, for what purpose had we fought and bled?—for what purpose had we triumphed?—what was the object of all our toils, and all the privations occasioned by the burthens of war? The laurels we had reaped would but wither on our brow, and all our battles have been fought in vain. He did not presume to obtrude his own crude opinions on their lordships attention: the opinions he had advanced were those of persons the best qualified to form a judgment on the subject: he had the authority of a man who had a better opportunity than any other of knowing, and of knowing officially the character of the French people; a man whose eagle eye had searched from one end of France to the other—he meant the duke of Otranto, better known by the name of Fouche. It was his opinion, that the instant the allied troops were withdrawn, would be followed by the fall of the Bourbons: the fall of that family would ensure a war against the rest of Europe, from motives of ambition or vengeance; and the renewal of such a contest as that which we had latley been engaged in, must be attended with inevitable destruction to this country. The renewal of the contest would bring on hostilities not similar to those which had been unexampled in glory by all that history could produce, which had raised this nation to a pitch of glory it had never attained before—he meant the hostilities that ended with the battle of Waterloo. This country still continued to feel exhausted with the gigantic efforts she had made in that contest, and it would be now utterly impossible for her to renew it with any hope of success. But the more he felt convinced that peace was necessary to the existence of this country, the more he wished every possible means to be resorted to for recovering that desirable tranquillity. Those means were already in our own hands. We had only to retain in France all the allied forces that now occupied that country; at all events for the whole period stipulated by treaty, and, if necessary, even for a longer period. He was not ignorant of the precise and imperative terms of that treaty, but he would contend that every treaty ought to be executed according to its intention and spirit, and not according to the letter. Thus the noble earl opposite had, on a former occasion, refused to evacuate Malta according to the strict terms of that treaty, but retained it according to the clear spirit of that treaty. Now, the clear spirit of the treaty in question was, first, that France should not be evacuated before the contributions were all paid; secondly, that time should be allowed to erect a barrier of fortresses on the Rhine; and thirdly, that a guarantee should be secured to Europe against the return of those calamities that had been so repeatedly inflicted on us by the unprincipled aggression and ambition of the country we had succeeded in twice conquering. Nothing but the most perfect security against such an occurrence could, in his opinion, justify the removal of the army of occupation. He was aware that this country must follow the line of politics adopted by the allies, but he hoped that they would be alive to the dangers of too easy a relinquishment of the security they now held. It was said, indeed, that the government of Louis 18th could not be sustained under the unpopularity occasioned by the presence of a foreign army; but the answer was, that the government of Louis 18th was only the means, the tranquillity of Europe the end, of all our precautions. He entreated his majesty's ministers to weigh well the consequences of withdrawing the army of occupation. The first event, after any political change in France, would be an irruption into Belgium. He entreated their lordships to consider what they would lose, and what the enemy would gain, by the line of fortresses which would thus fall into their hands. We should next be required to give up Buonaparte, an event that could not but be attended with the utter ruin of this country.—He forbore to touch on any other topic; but he trusted the Prince Regent (in whose wisdom he had the highest confidence) would avert the evil he so much apprehended. No man could be a warmer advocate of economy than himself; but we could have no economy, unless we were at peace; and retrenchments that endangered our security could not be called economy. Indeed, no word was so ill understood. In the language of many, it implied retrenchment of all, even the most necessary, expenses; and reform, a change of every thing, even the fundamentals of government. He entreated their lordships, before they relinquished the security they already possessed in France, to turn their attention to the improvements in the internal situation of the country, and the measures that might be necessary for the future. He was happy to hear that there was no farther necessity for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act; but he begged not to be understood as throwing any doubt on the propriety of that measure, to the firm adoption of which he attributed the tranquillity that now prevailed. The best proof of the necessity of the measures which his majesty's ministers had adopted, was afforded by the experience of what had been the situation of the country. He should have the honour, when the question came regularly before the House, to state the grounds and reasons which induced him to differ on this subject from many of those near him, as well as to dissent from all those chimeras of parliamentary reform which had been made the pretexts for disturbing the tranquillity of the country.

The Marquis of Lansdowne

said, he could have wished that the address had been so framed on the present occasion, as to have enabled him to give it his unqualified approbation. There were parts of it which were unobjectionable, and which he was fully prepared to support; but it contained, at the same time, some topics which he found it impossible to allow to pass unnoticed. Without imputing any blame to the noble lords who moved and seconded the address, or those who might have suggested the topics to which he alluded, he must say that, had it been possible to separate them from the expression of their lordships regret for that severe calamity which had afflicted the nation, he should have felt great pleasure in joining in the unanimity of the vote which must have been given on that subject. How that affliction had been regarded, was known from the manner in which it had, in the metropolis, and all over this busy county, interrupted the active pursuits of life. Never had any occurrence cast so deep a shade over the public mind, as this melancholy event had done. If ever there had been an occasion on which the feel- ings and voice of a people were unanimously expressed, it had occurred in this country in consequence of the calamity they had experienced. Those feelings, and that voice, had been manifested in the most general and strongest manner, and had been conveyed in accents of condolence to the foot of the throne, and in prayers to the foot of the altar. Before he quitted this melancholy subject, he must take the liberty of remarking, that the event they had so much reason to deplore, had afforded the strongest proof, were any proof wanting, of the unfeigned and unalterable attachment of the people to the principles of the act of settlement, by which the House of Brunswick was called to the throne—to the constitutional monarchy of the country, and to the order of succession which had been established. Having said this much, it was unnecessary for him to assure their lordships, that the part of the address relating to the event which had occasioned such universal sorrow had his most unqualified approbation. —With regard to other parts of the Address, though he could not give them his concurrence, yet it was not his intention to propose any amendment. It was, however, impossible for him to allow it to be supposed that one topic could have either directly or indirectly his approbation. He meant that part of the Address in which was implied a doubt, whether tranquillity could have been obtained under the usual operation of the constitution, if there had not been a change in the situation of the country. Was it possible for their lordships now to entertain any such doubt, after all that had passed last session, and all they had learned since? Where had there been any appearance of a conspiracy, for the suppression of which the laws were inadequate? After all the trials and investigations which had taken place, their lordships might ask themselves whether they had discovered evidence of any thing like an organized conspiracy, which called for the setting aside the constitution; and whether any discontent which had existed, was manifested in such a manner, or possessed such a force, that the ordinary and fair administration of the laws could not have suppressed it? He should expect ministers to show distinctly, not only that there had been a conspiracy, but that the number and character of the persons engaged in it were such as to require extraordinary measures for its suppression. He would maintain that they had not produced in the last session of parliament a tittle of evidence as to the extent of the conspiracy. They had asserted that it had ramifications throughout the country; but in the trials at Derby, where it was the business and the particular object of the attorney-general to prove that the discontented there had a correspondence with others in different quarters, he had completely failed. He could not prove that in any part of the country there had been the slightest connexion with these conspirators. This terrible conspiracy, too, was suppressed without the slightest difficulty by eighteen dragoons. He was satisfied that the men engaged in that transaction were very properly brought to trial, and justly convicted; but it was the only thing ministers had to bring forward as an apology for their measures. It was natural that the attorney-general should have exerted all his great abilities to prove, if he could, the existence of a communication between these conspirators and others in different parts of the country; for the only chance of an acquittal depended on the actual insignificance of the affair. The learned counsel for the Crown, had, however, established no connexion whatever. Nothing could more decidedly demonstrate the absurdity of this conspiracy than the evidence of what had been declared by the leader, or Nottingham captain-general, as he was called, who had been described to have announced to his followers, that France, England, and Ireland, and clouds from the north, would assist them in their insurrection. But, after all, the insurrection required no force to meet it, and might have been suppressed by a few parish constables. It was not the suspension of the Habeas Corpus that put down the insurrection, or the conspiracy, whichever it might be called: it had been extinguished by the due administration of the law—by apprehending and bringing the persons accused to trial; and the same law could have been applied with equal efficiency, though the Habeas Corpus act had remained in force. At the same time it was to be observed, that there was no proof of any conspiracy hostile to the institutions of the country. The whole disturbance sprung from partial discontent, with which the great body of the population of the place where it broke out were untainted. Even in the very villages through which the insurgents passed, the people ran away from them; and in no part of the country was there any trace to be found of the existence of a conspiracy to alter the king's government. He must therefore continue to maintain, that the grounds on which the suspension of the Habeas Corpus was called for by ministers, were entirely unfounded, and that the measure was altogether unnecessary. What he had that might heard of the state of the country afforded him great pleasure, but he could not give that change the credit which ministers seemed desirous of attributing to it, of removing great disaffection, and suppressing extensive conspiracies. The returning prosperity, on which ministers had dwelt with so much emphasis, was what he was happy to hear. He hoped also that the predictions of the improvement of the revenue would be realized, and he trusted it would continue to flourish, and that the burthens of the country would be diminished; but he must confess, that this was a matter which, in his opinion, admitted rather of hope than of certainty. He had thought it necessary to make these observations, though, as he had stated, he did not on this occasion intend to trouble their lordships with any proposition.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, he was gratified with the manner in which the noble marquis had expressed his concurrence with one part of the address, and acknowledged the candour with which he had stated his sentiments respecting other parts. If this were the proper occasion for entering into a consideration of the subjects to which the noble marquis had referred, he should be ready to maintain and prove that the precautionary measures which ministers had proposed were called for by the necessity of the case. The reports which had been made by committees chosen by their lordships, and facts subsequently disclosed, all showed that the state of the country was such as to require that extraordinary measures should be resorted to. If this were the time for discussing the subject, he was prepared to maintain that, in a case which involved the tranquillity and safety of the country, it would ill become their lordships to calculate how much danger and risk ought to be incurred before they employed the means of security which they held in their hands. With regard to the Speech from the throne, he must frankly confess that it had been the wish of ministers, without giving any opinion on disputable points themselves, or calling for any such opinion on the part of others, that it might be so framed as to obtain the unanimous approbation of the House. In this they were persuaded they had succeeded; and he hoped, when the noble marquis reconsidered the subject, that he would abandon the view of the Speech which he had taken. In fact, the Speech did nothing more than state, that the improved situation of the country had withdrawn from the disaffected the principal means on which they relied for accomplishing their seditious or treasonable ends. This had no reference to the question of the propriety of suspending the Habeas Corpus act last session. The noble marquis thought there was no necessity for that measure: he(lord Liverpool) thought there was: but whether the opinion of the noble marquis or that which he opposed to it was the right one, had nothing to do with the present address.—He must now say a word or two on what had fallen from a noble friend of his (earl Stanhope) in a speech of great ability, which he had addressed to their lordships. In his noble friend's peculiar situation it appeared that he considered himself called upon to state his sentiments, and he approved of the feeling on which he acted. He thought it necessary, however, to remark, that the observations of his noble friend were not of that kind on which it would be fitting for him to dwell. All he wished to say was, that the great policy of this country was, to maintain the present peace, so important to this country and to Europe: and that it would be the object of his majesty's government to preserve that peace by pursuing the course most likely to secure it; namely, a strict adherence to the engagements into which the country had entered; which was the best means of securing the fidelity of the other contracting parties in their engagements. He must also observe, that he could not partake in the opinion which his noble friend had expressed respecting the feelings of the people of France towards the sovereign of that country. He had, indeed a strong impression of a contrary nature. This much he would also say, that neither the state of that country, nor of any other part of the continent of Europe, exhibited, in his opinion, any appearances calculated to excite the apprehensions which his noble friend entertained. The well known disposition of all the continental powers afforded the best guarantee for the preservation of peace. He should say nothing farther on this subject; and he hoped that what he had previously stated would have the effect of removing the objections of the noble marquis. When the present motion should be agreed to, his noble friend, the secretary of state for the home department, would propose the Preliminary steps for the measure of which he had given notice.

The Address was then agreed to nem. dis.

Lord Sidmouth

gave notice, that he would present a bill to-morrow for repealing the Habeas Corpus Suspension act, and also, that he would move for the suspension of the standing orders, which requires a certain interval to pass between the different stages of bills, in order that they might be enabled to pass the bill in the course of to-morrow.