HL Deb 18 April 1831 vol 3 cc1470-8
Viscount Hood

presented a Petition from the county of Warwick in favour of the Reform Bill.

The Earl of Warwick

had no objection to receive the petition; but he wished it to be understood that it was signed only by the High Sheriff, and did not represent the sentiments of the whole county of Warwick.

The Earl of Eldon

rose to say a few words; but gave way to

Lord Calthorpe, who expressed his regret that a measure of such importance, casting a stigma on both Houses of Parliament should have been brought forward without due deliberation. It was a measure requiring the most patient attention and the greatest care—and this measure, it appeared, had received neither. He regretted, too, that any allusion should ever have been made to the will of the Sovereign, to promote a measure that demanded the greatest coolness. He lamented, also, that it should have been propounded to the people when in a state of excitement, so that they were prevented from forming a cool opinion on the subject. He begged it might be understood, that in making these remarks, he had no hostility to the Ministers; but he wished their scheme, which to him appeared wild and bewildering, to lie over for another Session.

The Earl of Eldon

was not going to discuss the Reform Bill, when the only question before the House was, whether or not the petition should be received. He wished then to observe, that the whole of their Lordships proceedings, in relation to the Bill then before the other House, had been more irregular than anything he had ever known in the whole course of his parliamentary life. He would not enter into any arguments on the subject; he would only say, that he hoped their Lordships would take care how such irregular conduct was drawn in to establish a precedent; and to prevent this, when the present motion was disposed of, he would submit a proposition to their Lordships.

The Earl of Walsingham

declared himself opposed to every kind and species of disfranchisement.

The Earl of Harewood

did not mean to discuss the subject to which the petition related; but there were some matters connected with the conduct held with regard to that Bill, which he thought it his duty, as a Peer and a subject, to advert to. The Bill had been proposed to the House of Commons by the Government in a complete state of excitement, and when the people were also in a state of excitement; and means had been used to make them come to a conclusion on these important matters which they would not have formed under the influence of a calm judgment. That House, too, had heard—and very sorry he was that it ever had heard— something in the nature of a threat directed against both Houses of Parliament. The other House of Parliament had been threatened with a dissolution, and that House, though not threatened with a dissolution and re-election, had had intimated to it that there was danger to that House in refusing its consent to the measure. He did think that, for any purpose, to make use of such threats was very disrespectful. It was impossible also for the Government to carry on a business of that nature, and not be acquainted with the proceedings of the Press. That Press he respected in common with other men; but, at the same time, if he were a member of the Government, and found that Press advocating his cause in a manner that threatened the existence of the Parliament, and almost the safety of the Crown, could he allow the Press so to proceed? He would not say that he would stop it by coming into collision with its proceedings; but he should think it his duty, in that situation, at least, to disclaim the arguments by which the Press was supporting his cause. A measure of that nature, perhaps, ought not to be brought forward at a time of such discontent; and it was the duty of the Government not to have proposed such a measure, when the country was in a state of excitement from causes external to the country; but they ought to have waited till the country was restored to a state of satisfaction. He was old enough to remember former times. In looking at the subject now moved, he found himself carried back to former times, and general principles. He was old enough to remember what passed after the first French Revolution, and there were many circumstances now in connexion with this Bill, not dissimilar to those of that period. Another remark which he considered it his serious duty to make was this:—he could not conceive that any person except one willing to risk the great injury to the country which the present opportunity of the excited state of the public mind,. from extraordinary circumstances afforded, would bring forward a measure of that kind which had not been sufficiently considered. Was this a time to take advantage of that excitement? The noble and learned Lord (the Lord Chancellor) knew the transactions which had occurred in a county with which they were both then connected. He admired that noble Lord's great ability, and knew the great extent of his general information, and he had been anxious to hear his explanation, and know what plan of Reform he recommended. He was pleased then to hear the noble and learned Lord propose a plan which he conceived went to remedy the defects of the Representation. The noble and learned Lord described himself as the champion of Reform, and he had stated, that he would be ready to give one Member to such a number of voters as would enable the elections to be concluded within a reasonable time, and avoid the expense and inconvenience that now accrued from a protracted contest. He spoke, too, of doing away out-voters, and giving votes to copyholders. Those were, he believed, the chief alterations then proposed by the noble and learned Lord. He wished to ask why the noble and learned Lord now agreed to a measure so different from the one he had formerly recommended? Whether that noble and learned Lord had changed his former opinion or not was not for him to say. Such a Bill, though received favourably by the public, had created great confusion throughout the country, and seemed to him a premature and unprepared measure. The more he examined it, the more he was confirmed in this opinion. He begged pardon for saying one word on the subject, but it excited in him great interest, and weighed upon his mind. He believed, that discussion would throw light upon it, and make the people better understand it. He was not an enemy to alterations, if made at suitable times, but he could not support the Reform Bill. The noble Lord concluded by declaring that his opinions were not, either on that or on any other subject formed with a view to popularity.

Earl Grey

entirely agreed with the noble Earl opposite in one of his remarks, in thinking that the discussion of the question of Reform could not be attended with any disadvantage, because he considered that the measure would gain much by discussion; therefore it was, that to discussion at a proper time he had never shown himself adverse; nay, even at irregular opportunities, although the noble Lord on the cross-bench deprecated discussions on such occasions as unusual and irregular, he did not feel himself called on to oppose their Lordships' entering into a Debate, as there was a disposition in the House to entertain the subject; neither did he think himself precluded from taking the opportunity to vindicate that measure, for which he, in common with his colleagues, stood responsible; and to endeavour to remove, as far as he could, the misapprehensions with which it had been received by some individuals. He was the last man to impute to the noble Lord any desire of popularity, nor did he know any thing that had passed on the present occasion, either by sign or look, that could have induced the noble Earl to enter into a vindication of his own motives in relation to this question. Undoubtedly popularity was not the course which the noble Lord could be justly accused of pursuing; but he must congratulate the noble Earl and the pub- lic on at least one good effect of the Reform measure—namely, that the noble Lord, who on every occasion that this question of Reform had presented itself— Reform, either extensive or limited—Reform even confined to the transfer of the abused franchise of a decayed borough to a great and opulent town—that he whom, till this night's Debate, no man in the House or in the country had ever heard acknowledge that under any circumstances, at any time, or in any degree, should any proposition for the amendment of the Representation be assented to, had at length learnt from these discussions that some Reform was necessary, and now professed himself ready to agree to some changes. Amidst all the imputations cast upon his Majesty's Ministers—amidst all the objections offered to their measure—the proposition was at least entitled to the credit of this good effect, that it had produced in the noble Lord's mind at last a conviction that some Reform was indispensable. And even to. that Reform intended to be brought forward by his noble and learned friend on the Woolsack (and which he regretted that his noble friend had not been able to propose in the House of Commons, were it only for the sake of seeing the votes upon it), the noble Earl, it seemed, would have consented, although till this moment nobody had ever heard any thing from him but the most violent declarations against Reform generally. He did not intend to go into a refutation of all the noble Lord's observations, but there were one or two things which the noble Earl had stated, that he could not suffer to pass without remark. By the way, the noble Lord had shown by what he stated, that he was not present during the Debates on this question; for if he had attended the discussions, it would have been impossible for him to have stated that any threat or intimidation had been used upon the Ministerial side of the House. With respect to one particular threat alluded to by the noble Lord, he himself, so far from resorting to, had disclaimed it, stating that he neither possessed the inclination, nor was armed with the authority, to use it; at the same time he stated, that he felt fully committed to the measure of Reform brought forward by himself and his colleagues, and that he was prepared to advise the adoption of whatever means could be resorted to in a constitutional way for its accomplishment. With respect to the other more general threat, he wished to know to what extent the noble Lord wished to carry it. He said, that not only had the other House been threatened with a dissolution, but their Lordships had been menaced with the consequences that might ensue from the rejection of the measure. Was it to be described as a threat, if taking all the bearings of the question and arguing upon them, different persons on one side or the other chose to point out the dangers that might result from a decision contrary to that which they believed to be advantageous to the country? If this species of argument were to be objected to as involving a menace, it would preclude the use of an important branch of consideration in the hands of any statesman, and in relation to many subjects where the question was—what did the circumstances of the country require; and what were the consequences likely to arise from the adoption or rejection of any given measure? Was it possible to discuss public measures and avoid mentioning such topics? Was the noble Duke opposite (Wellington) accused of threatening the Legislature, when he stated, three Sessions ago, as one of the chief grounds of the Catholic Relief Bill, the evil effects that had resulted, and were likely to result, from the measure not being granted, and when he held up to their Lordships the dangerous state of Ireland, present and prospective, in the event of its failure? Was the noble Duke accused of menace because he declared that, should that bill fail it would be impossible for the Government to be conducted as heretofore, and that, knowing the evils of war, he deprecated as more distressing than any other the evils of a civil war? These sentiments were not considered as threats, but as fair and legitimate statements, calculated to justify the noble Duke's motives in bringing forward the measure. He was not aware of any thing different from this in principle being said on the present occasion. He did think that there was a strong feeling in the public mind on this question, as indeed the noble Lord expressly acknowledged when he talked of excitement; and certainly every man who considered the state of popular feeling must also take into consideration the effects which the rejection or accomplishment of the measure was likely to produce. Disclaiming any thing like the use of threats in support of the measure, or any thing beyond a fair and constitutional line of argument, and looking at the general state of the country, he contended that it was wise and politic to look to consequences. If danger had been stated on one side as likely to result from the rejection, was not danger asserted by the other to be the consequence of the adoption of the measure? He did not complain of this mode of arguing in the opponents of Reform as involving threats, but was it not as like a threat as the same species of reasoning when employed by the supporters of the Bill? If the noble Lord's complaint applied to the friends of the measure, it was at least equally applicable to its enemies. "But," said the noble Lord, "it was improper in his Majesty's Government to introduce this question at a period of excitement." Now, that some such measure was generally looked for—that the country was calling for it, he certainly thought. He had stated this fact before he came into office, and he had repeated it since. Further, he had stated his firm conviction, that compliance with the public wish in this respect would be of the greatest importance to the public tranquillity; he had stated this, and on this principle he had recommended the measure to his Majesty. The question he proposed was, whether the strong excitement that so generally prevailed was more likely to be increased, and made more dangerous, by attending to the wishes of the people, than by pertinaciously withholding those changes, to which they looked forward as a source of positive and incalculable benefit as well as a relief from their grievances. It was upon this consideration that he had to make up his mind, and feeling that the balance preponderated infinitely in favour of the former alternative, it was on this ground that he and his colleagues had proposed the measure of Reform, and not with a view to increase, but, on the contrary, to diminish the existing excitement, as well as to prevent its recurrence. He had never taken any step to promote the getting up of petitions upon the subject, and whatever endeavours might have been used by persons on the other side of the question, he would say, that there never was a more spontaneous expression of feeling on the part of the people. On no occasion had there been so fervent and unanimous a popular feeling in favour of any public measure. He would now briefly allude to what had been said respecting the Reform Bill being a hasty and an ill-prepared measure. Whether this were the case or not, would appear when the measure came before the House; all that he could say was, that he had been convinced of the necessity of proposing some measure upon the subject, and both he and his colleagues had given their most anxious attention to the best means of carrying such a measure into effect. The Bill might be appealed to in defence of his conduct; but it was not a hasty measure, it was not brought forward without consideration; nor was it without the most careful examination that the plan had been proposed to Parliament. If he had failed in producing a good measure, it must be attributed to his want of ability, and certainly not to his want of care. The noble Lord had then asked, whether he was aware of the state of the public Press. He had asked whether he read the daily libels, the violent attacks upon all persons opposed to the measure, and the vehement addresses made to the passions of the people in order to excite them. The noble Lord had hardly uttered these expressions, before it was evident that he felt the impropriety of them. Could any man ask him how he could put down the publication of the articles that appeared in the Press? He never had had much communication with the Press at any period of his life, and he now knew no person whatever that conducted a public paper. He must confess, that he had seen much to disapprove of in the public journals, but he had likewise seen much which excited his admiration, and which he believed to be calculated to produce great public benefit. At the present moment the daily Press of the country displayed more ability than it ever had done at any former period. But was he to be called upon to disavow or discountenance what appeared in the newspapers? Really he found that he had a great deal to do, both in that House and out of it—much more than he found it convenient to perform—and if he were to have added to his duties that of coming down to that House and following the noble Lord into all the publications of which he might disapprove, he should say that it was a duty that never had been imposed upon any Minister, and one which he should feel himself unable to discharge. But he would ask, were the libels only on one side—was intemperance, was violence, was abuse, confined to only one side of this question? Could not the noble Lord lay his hands upon newspapers that poured out the most intemperate violence and rancorous abuse upon all persons who advocated the cause of Reform? Were they not vituperated as enemies to the country, as traitors to the Sovereign, and as persons actuated solely by desires to promote their own views? He (Lord Grey) had often been the subject of such attacks, but he had trusted his defence to the good sense, the intelligence, and probity of the public. He had heard other persons complain of being libelled by the Press, and he had been at the same time as much as any man exposed to such libellous attacks, but he thought he had done much better in not interfering. He had trusted his public conduct to public opinion, well knowing that no evil would arise from such a confidence, for truth would ultimately prevail, and compensate for any temporary confusion or inconvenience. He could not but deprecate the most inconvenient mode that was now pursued of getting into long debates when petitions were presented to the House, and he hoped the example of that night would not be drawn into a precedent. He was, however, anxious to discuss the question of Reform upon every possible opportunity, believing that the measure was founded upon the known and established principles of the Constitution, and that the more it was discussed the more it would gain upon the sober and temperate conviction of all men; and this alone was necessary to the complete success of the measure.

The Earl of Harewood

explained that, in his opinion, there was a difference between opposing a particular measure, and being a party for or against Reform in the bulk. He did not require the noble Lord to control the public Press, but he thought it would be prudent on the part of Government to disavow some of the arguments which the Press advanced in favour of the measure.

The Petition to lie on the Table.

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