HL Deb 21 December 1819 vol 41 cc1374-85

The bill was read a third time. On the motion, that it do pass,

Lord Erskine

said, that although he had long foreseen that ill-advised and imprudent meetings of persons too numerous to be useful for the objects they had in view, however legal, were likely to give occasion to alarms as they had done formerly, so as to be made the foundation of new laws depriving the whole nation of rights which he hoped would never be surrendered by Englishmen; yet he did not expect that a measure so totally unnecessary and so likely to aggravate all the evils complained of, would have been sent up for approbation from the House of Commons—but being here, and looking back to those sent down to them, he despaired altogether of making an impression by any thing he could say; a feeling which disqualified him from speaking as he ought. I have been accustomed, my lords (said lord E.) during the greatest part of my life, to be animated by the hope and expectation that I might not be speaking in vain; a sensation without which there can be no energy in discourse—I have often heard it said, and I believe it to be true, that even the most eloquent man living (how then must I be disabled), and however deeply impressed with his subject, could scarcely find utterance, if he were to be standing up alone, and speaking only against a wall. He meant no offence to the noble lords opposite by the comparison, nor meant to impute to them insensibility or injustice, but their minds were now so thoroughly settled on the question before them, that there was no thoroughfare through their understandings, however liberal they might be—and he should therefore be very short in the performance of what he felt to be a duty too imperious to be passed by. In looking at the bills before them, it appeared as if there had been no provisions against seditious meetings in the common law or in the ancient statutes of the country, and that they were beginning for the first time to legislate on the subject; and from the amendments they had rejected last night, they appeared to be little acquainted with what they were about. The objects they sought to point out from the statement of his noble friend the secretary of state—were meetings dangerous from their numbers—assembled from considerable distances; attended by itinerant orators, with music and seditious symbols to excite disturbance—marching in regular array. He admitted that none of these things were necessary for the great ends of meetings of the people constitutionally assembled to claim and to represent infringements of their rights. But did not the ancient laws sufficiently provide against such abuses—might not meetings, however, legal their objects degenerate into abuse and be attended with danger, and in all such cases not only by the common law but by the Riot act, might not all such excesses be Checked; and when there was no other safe remedy, might not such tumultuous assemblies be peaceably dispersed, and even by force, when necessity justified such unfortunate recourse?—Why then, if the people were well satisfied with these restraints upon the irregularities of freedom, why outrage and insult them by putting the exercise of their immemorial and unquestionable privileges under the absolute control of magistrates, whose existences might be terminated in a moment, by a stroke of the pen, by his noble friend on the woolsack, he being himself a magistrate during the pleasure of the Crown. Not that I anticipate from him (said lord E.), any abuse of his authority; but if instead of being an honest man, as I think him, he were an angel sent down to us, and I could see his wings peeping out from under his gown, I would not trust the liberties of England in his hands,—liberties the gift of God himself to a wise and an undaunted people. Consistently with these liberties, and wisely for their preservation, the Crown had great and salutary powers for the preservation of the peace, and nothing therefore could be so rash as to undervalue those laws which the people had long been familiar to, and to begin to govern them by new ones, which though most offensively restrictive, created no greater security against disorder of any description; but, on the contrary, gave rise to a dangerous spirit of disaffection by the sense that public liberty had been infringed. Against the evils complained how easy was the remedy, by only putting the ancient laws into vigorous execution, quieting at the same time the agitated minds of the multitude, by yielding to his noble friend's advice on the first day of the session, to institute a calm and constitutional inquiry into the abuses and unnecessary violences they complained of. He was glad to see, therefore, even a noble lord who in general acted with ministers proposing some modification of the bill before them, and it gave him pleasure, because he remembered him in his cradle when his father was a companion at the bar. The power given to magistrates was indeed an absolute repeal of all meetings of the people, except when held under a roof, meetings which had been most unqualifiedly admitted by Mr. Pitt in 1795, to be constitutional and legal, so that there was now no right left to hold voluntary assemblies of the people for any object whatsoever, but at the will of the ministers and magistrates of the Crown. This was but a short sighted view of the principles which could alone produce affectionate and lasting submission to authority. From the moment the bill before them was passed into law, it was in the power of any one man who might be sent to utter some seditious expression, or rather some spy resident on the spot for the very purposes, to put an end in a moment to any meeting however legally assembled or peaceably conducted. He wondered at first why the exclusion of non residents was so tenaciously supported by his majesty's ministers, as even their own spies might have been shut out from attending them; but it had appeared by an attentive examination of the papers before them, and by all information, that they had spies resident in every quarter, and actually engaged in their nefarious and pernicious duty. There might be some kind of excuse for these new and harsh alterations, if the people at large had become generally disaffected or discontented without cause. It was true undoubtedly that an universal distrust in parliament pervaded the country, and of course a desire for its reformation equally universal amongst the lower and middle orders, but was this spirit to be wondered at when the multitude were suffering privations and distresses unexampled, which they believed, and had the authority of the ablest and most public spirited men whom England had ever bred, for believing that all their sufferings had arisen from the irresistible power and influence of the Crown in the House of Commons from a deficient representation. Can I, my lords, for one (said lord E.), consent to consider the people as disaffected to parliament, and unjustly complaining of its neglect of duty to them, when I have myself for thirty years together been a loud and public complainer on the same account. They think that parliament blindly persevered for twenty-four years together in the war against France, after repeated opportunities lost of safe pacification, imposing upon our subjects whom it is now preparing to oppress for complaining of an insufferable and ruinous taxation. It is true that the period came at last when peace was impossible, and when imperious necessity demanded that Buonaparté should at all hazards be resisted, and I myself for that reason gave one vote for continuing our exertions, but which after even their almost miraculous termination, had left us rivals formidable to our prosperity, rivals in nations whom we had supported, and ourselves he hoped not fatally, but for the present miserably exhausted. Now if all these events were chargeable upon parliament in public opinion, was it sedition in the people to call loudly for reformation? Lord E. said, he was ready at all times to raise his voice against the mistaken clamours for annual parliaments or universal suffrage, and even if he thought that they would be an improvement of the constitution, he should equally resist them, from a perfect conviction that they never could be effected but through a sanguinary revolution; but this notion was not entertained by men capable of duly considering such a momentous subject, and was besides attributed to thousands who never had seriously considered or desired it. He had impaired his health and strength in defending the late Mr. Tooke, for being traitorously engaged to effect this object, though his letter to lord Ashburton which he (lord E.), had read upon the trial, was the ablest and most conclusive argument that the wit or wisdom of man could have composed upon the subject. Here he read several very striking passages in this letter, one particularly in which Mr. Tooke exposes, in the happiest manner, the difference between an equal right to a share in the representation, and a right to an equal share. If parliament did its duty, this nonsense of universal suffrage would soon pass away. It ought, therefore, by its conduct to redeem its character with the people, to secure their esteem and cultivate their affections. If this were done the people would feel with contentment and security that there was no other road to reform but by the consent of the legislature, and would duly appreciate whatever alterations its wisdom might enact. It was on that account he so highly approved of the measure which lord John Russell had suggested, because, whilst it established a principle, and pledged the House of Commons by its adoption, yet it imposed no limitation by its success, but left reformation open to all the arguments for its advancement, whilst it exposed the danger and the folly of seeking charges through tumult; which no wise man would consent to, even if peaceably and constitutionally within his reach. With regard to the irregularities against which all these new measures were directed, he thought their objects were grossly misrepresented, and their dangers overstated. He did not mean to enter into any defence of Mr. Hunt, but he saw no evidence whatever of his having any design or imagination to subvert the government, and thought the utmost extent of his offending, if he should be found to have been an offender, would be that he had been present at a meeting originally legal, but from its numbers most imprudent, and which had only become illegal and dangerous, if it were found to be illegal and dangerous, by the violences and the irregularities of others whom he had not at all offended, and to whom neither he nor those assembled with him were offering any resistance.—I conclude (said lord E.), by deeply regretting that public liberty which has been for ages the pride and glory of this country, is destined to undergo the degrading change which this and other measures are in my opinion so likely to produce.

The Earl of Darnley

rejoiced that his noble and learned friend, and his other noble friends, had so strenuously opposed the measures of ministers. Their eloquence had not been entirely thrown away, for some good had been done by the stand which they had made between the government and the people. The bill brought in by the noble and learned lord on the woolsack, owed all its improvements to the suggestions and exertions of his noble friend near him (lord Holland). With regard to the bill for preventing blasphemous libels, the punishment of transportation, which had been so pertinaciously maintained in its passage through that House, was at last given up; and for that concession on the part of ministers the country was indebted to the exertions of his noble friends in this and his hon. friends in the other House of Parliament. Libels had been permitted to go on without any notice being taken of them; but the punishment of transportation, which had been given up, was said to have been introduced in consequence of a particular case. The unfortunate man referred to had, however, been visited with a punishment for his second offence, which, to judge from the principles of human nature, was not likely to encourage the repetition of such conduct. With regard to the object of this bill, ministers had acted as in other cases. They had suffered meetings for the pretended purpose of petitioning to assemble under the control of demagogues, acting on the distress of the country. These assemblages had been allowed to go on without any thing being done to prevent them. In the mean time, the unfortunate transaction at Manchester had taken place, and the manner in which all inquiry had been stifled on that subject had driven the people to despair. The refusal of investigation, after parliament had assembled, must have increased the irritation. But what he chiefly complained of was, that no steps had been taken to put the existing law into execution, and that ministers had not appealed to parliament so soon as they ought to have done, if they really needed new powers. As yet they had not shown that the existing law was insufficient, and therefore had no right to call on parliament to pass such severe measures. He was against universal suffrage, because that was a system which would lead to all the horrors of revolution; but he was by no means the enemy of reform, and approved very much of what had fallen from his noble and learned friend on that subject. He was a reformer, because he was convinced that the constitution contained within itself the principle of reform. The noble and learned lord on the woolsack had shown himself a reformer by his bill for preventing delays in the administration of justice. He must oppose this measure, as no evidence to satisfy his mind had been produced to show that the existing law was insufficient to correct the evils complained of.

Lord Ellenborough

, having proposed several amendments on clauses of the bill, wished to state the reasons which induced him to support it. He was the friend of public meetings, for he was of opinion that they were of great advantage in preserving freedom, and that they had been the means of maintaining the fabric of the constitution in energy and vigour. The late war could never have been carried on, had it not been for the spirit with which public meetings animated the country. Though he had objected to some of the clauses of the bill, he voted for it as a whole; because he believed that many of its enactments were calculated to restore to the people what they had lost—the advantage of free discussion; also to give to parliament what it had long lost—the means of ascertaining the opinion of the country, which it was impossible to know without free discussion. Now, to discover the real state of public opinion was impossible, if great bodies of people were allowed to move from one place to another, and to assemble at a particular point, as had been the case at Manchester, and there out-vote the resident inhabitants. Thus a very small minority, acting upon malignant motives, might give the semblance of an overwhelming majority. He voted for this measure because it left untouched all those kinds of public meetings which were known when the Bill of Rights and the Habeas Corpus act passed;; because it left untouched all those meetings which had been legally known to the country for the last century and a half, during which this country had been raised to the highest pitch of prosperity. He voted for it too because it prevented such meetings as those of Manchester and Birmingham; because it prevented the harangues of itinerant orators, and the display of physical force. A very material change had within these thirty years taken place, with respect to this and every other government of Europe. The progress of education, and the influence of the press, had brought public opinion more in contact with the government than before. Was it advisable when such a revolution in the state of society had taken place, to add to it the influence of that kind of meetings, which consisted in the display of a great physical force, assumed for the purpose of over-awing the government? It was important neither too greatly to relax, nor to draw too close the connexion between the people and the legislature. If the bonds which unite them were too much relaxed, the people were apt to imagine that their interests were disregarded. If they were drawn too close, an undue impulse must be given to the representative body, which would thereby become liable to the most dangerous versatility. Great wisdom was necessary to preserve the proper balance. If the public meetings of the kind which had taken place were allowed to go on, he doubted not that many of them would still meet and disperse quietly, but then it would be to watch the opportunity to abate that nuisance of government against which they passed resolutions. Under such circumstances the government could not stand six months longer. It was the great advantage of parish meetings, that they admitted of free discussion. The speakers would be known to each other, and the character of each speaker would probably be known to all who attended the meeting. He considered the present bill as a solemn warning to the disaffected, that they would not be suffered to carry their designs into practice; and also a solemn pledge to the well-affected, that parliament was resolved to protect them. He was above all things anxious that the bill should pass, because he wished to legislate while we yet had the opportunity so to do. It would be too late if rebellion was suffered to show its head; for then there could be no question but to put it down. He was, however, most anxious to avoid that painful necessity; for in civil contests, victory and defeat were almost equally to be dreaded. In passing the bill on the table, their lordships would grant nearly all that ministers had demanded of them. But after all should be given that was asked, he must say, that that would not be sufficient unless their lordships resolved to look at the situation of the country, and endeavoured to discover the hidden sources of the danger which threaten- ed it. To show that parliament felt for and with the people, would tend more than any other measure that could be adopted to tranquillize the country. All the acts their lordships might pass, were in themselves mere waste paper, if they had not with them the hearts of the people. Of this he was convinced—that if, on investigation, it was shown to the country, that the public difficulties arose from unavoidable circumstances, and that nothing was neglected on the part of parliament to correct them, there remained in the national character sufficient firmness to bear with any calamity. An inquiry into the cause of the distress which had subsisted for the last five years would be of more importance than any bills that could be passed. Above all, it was necessary to show, that the people were united in support of that constitution, which, to sum up all its advantages in one short sentence, had raised man to a nobler, rank in this country, than in any other in the world.

Earl Grosvenor

should not have troubled their lordships upon the present occasion, but for a petition which he had been requested to present from the city of Westminster. The petitioners were anxious to state their case to their lordships, and to induce the House to sanction the introduction of a clause, by way of rider, which would have the effect of excepting them from the severer operation of this measure. The petitioners grounded their claim to this privilege, more particularly upon an expression which had fallen from a noble earl, a member of the administration and president of the council. That noble lord, the petitioners stated, had observed, in emphatic terms, upon the tranquil character of the meetings held in the city of Westminster, and had contrasted the meetings held in various parts of the country with those convened in Westminster. Whether the petitioners were or were not mistaken in this point, at least noble lords would allow that a petition from the city of Westminster was one worthy of attention. The petitioners so far flattered themselves, that they thought they were worthy of the character given to them, and were therefore most anxious that the clause which he had already alluded to should be introduced. For the purpose, of considering this clause, perhaps it might be advisable to adjourn the debate to some future day.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, it was impossible for the noble lord to do what he proposed in this stage of the bill, viz. to introduce a new clause after the bill had been read a third time. It was competent for the noble lord to move the adjournment of the debate, but the opportunity was past for introducing any new clause.

The Lord Chancellor

observed, that after the third reading of the bill had been agreed to, the question then arose upon the passing of the bill. Upon this latter question their lordships were now debating; and, according to all the rules of debate which he had ever heard of, no clause could be introduced in this stage of the measure. The noble lord might, indeed, move for the adjournment of the debate, but no reason had yet been assigned for such a motion.

Earl Grosvenor

feared that it was now too late to propose the introduction of any clause. It was, however, competent for him to move an amendment to the original motion, for an adjournment, for the purpose of considering the contents of the parchment he held in his hand. The petitioners imagined that the officer to whom the power was given of calling these meetings, however respectable he might be individually, yet might probably be influenced; and instanced the case of the refusal of the high bailiff to call a meeting to consider the proceedings at Manchester on the 16th of August. With respect to the bill itself, he strongly objected to it in principle, inasmuch as it tended to check the disposition in the people to petition for the removal of their grievances; but he really thought some regulations were requisite with respect to the mode of holding the meetings. It had been observed by a noble lord, that the itinerant orators and demagogues were the cause of the discontent throughout the county. In this observation he begged to differ most widely from the noble lord, because he conceived that it was the discontent which gave rise to the demagogues; and if that discontent were increased by the coercive measures of the government, instead of these itinerant orators being confined to one or two local spots, the whole country would be covered with them, and every parish would have its particular demagogues.

The Earl of Harrowby

said, that as far as he was enabled to recollect, the only expression which had dropped from him respecting the Westminster meetings were these:—He was observing upon the meetings which had been held in former times, and referred to certain assemblies convened in 1780. In touching upon this subject, he had alluded to a meeting held in Westminster, not consisting of all the populace of the city, but confined to the inhabitant householders only. With this explanation, which he felt it his duty to make, he should content himself, and leave the House to judge as to the propriety of receiving the petition.

The Earl of Blesington

rose to repeat the objection he had urged last night to the extension of the bill to Ireland. However unsuccessful he might be in his efforts, he felt fully convinced that this measure was not in the least qualified for Ireland, although it might be calculated to prevent farther disturbances in this country. Under all the grievances under which Ireland had suffered, under all her oppressions and calamities arising from famine and disease, under all the distressing circumstances caused by the act of Union, that country had not complained, but had quietly borne the load of suffering. What then was the return for this praiseworthy conduct? Little relief had been afforded or attention paid; and now, as a farther reward to that unhappy country, the government was about to favour it with this protecting measure. He alluded to the hopes held out to the Protestants on the one hand against emancipation, and on the other to the Catholics in favour of their freedom; and affirmed that Mr. Pitt had resigned his office upon this very question. To neither party had satisfaction been given; for emancipation had neither been granted, nor entirely refused. He concluded with giving notice of his intention, after the recess, to move for a committee to inquire into the state of Ireland.

The Earl of Liverpool

felt anxious to impress upon the House this fact—that the bill could not operate as a prejudice to Ireland. With respect to what had fallen from the noble earl as to the act of Union, he thought it was a little too much, after the lapse of many years, that the noble earl should now come forward to make a deliberate attack upon it. With regard to what had been said relative to the question of Catholic emancipation, he should be glad to know whence the noble earl obtained his information. Fortunately there was a most complete record, which per- haps it would not be quite regular for him now to refer to, of the sentiments of the right hon. gentleman referred to contained in his speech delivered in parliament. If the noble earl would look into that record, he would find no such intimation as he had stated. He could not allow it to be said that Ireland had been oppressed, and that this country had done nothing to relieve its distress. He begged the noble earl, before he made such assertion, to inspect the Journals of the House. By these it would be found that this country had relieved Ireland of the whole burden of its debt. This, he would undertake to say, was a most important relief to the people of Ireland, and as great a boon as ever was granted by one country to another. But this was not all; the noble earl seemed entirely to have forgotten, that from the burden of the property-tax Ireland was relieved altogether.

The bill was then passed