HL Deb 15 June 1832 vol 13 cc728-33
The Marquess of Londonderry

said, that seeing the noble Earl at the head of his Majesty's Government in his place, he would take the liberty of trespassing for a few moments on the House, while he asked that noble Earl a question relative to a meeting, which had been lately held, of a Political Union at the town of Sunderland, in the north of England. In the first place, he repeated the expression of the deep regret with which he heard the noble Earl, at the conclusion of which a speech he made when the subject of Political Unions was before the House, declare that it was not his intention to interfere with those bodies, conceiving that the good sense of the people of England would put an end to them after the Reform Bill was passed, and the excitement which had called them into action had subsided. He was sorry that the noble Earl had made any such declaration, and he was sure that if he had narrowly followed the conduct of those political bodies, since the Reform Bill was passed into a law, he would find good grounds for changing his opinion; and he was convinced if, in particular, he looked at the nature of the language held at the meeting to which he was about to refer, the noble Earl would feel the responsible situation in which he was placed, and see the necessity of reconsidering his determination. At that meeting various speeches were made, all of a violent nature; but the Mr. Larkins who spoke on the former occasion, and who was described to him as a friend of Dr. Headlam, delivered a speech more inflammatory than the rest. He would not occupy the House by reading extracts at any length from those speeches, but merely state one or two passages from that of Mr. Larkins. In one place that person said "that Earl Grey was but a weak instrument in the hands of the people, and without the Political Unions he would be nothing." But the thing did not rest there; for the Political Unions, not content with their meetings and inflammatory harangues, circulated cheap publications, and he held in his hand a copy of one which was circulated, according to the account of a very respectable informant, to a not less extent than 150,000. It was entitled "The People's Charter, with an introduction relative to the King's conduct." The first part was so libellous that he would not waste the time of their Lordships in repeating it; but, what he wanted to point out was, that the latter part was neither more nor less than a copy of instructions to the people of England with respect to their conduct at the approaching general elections. He was sure that one of the consequences of these Political Unions would be, that whenever an election did take place, or in whatever part of the country, it would be ruled at their dictation. The publication he referred to had this passage. The people must remember that the battle of freedom is but begun; and that its next, its grand, its sacred objects, are—a free Press, Universal Suffrage, Vote by Ballot, and Annual Parliaments. They must remember that the best means of obtaining these is to enrol themselves in Political Unions, to call incessant public meetings, and widely diffuse such works as the present. They must remember, that if they exact not pledges in favour of these four great objects, from parliamentary candidates, then slavery is sanctioned by their own consent. They must remember that, to refuse to pay taxes is the best mode of hastening every opposed Reform; and, on the contrary, that to pay these is to purchase a precisely corresponding duration of oppression. The time will soon arrive when they will have an opportunity of following the excellent advice of Sir James Mackintosh, "to tolerate nothing ancient that reason does not sanction, and to shrink from no novelty to which reason may conduct."' Even the favoured town of Gateshead had a Political Union, which had already gone the length of starting a candidate, and that Union called on the people to vote for no man who was not pledged to dissolve what they called the sacrilegious union between Church and State—to do away with septennial Parliaments—to abolish the Corn laws, and to act as a delegate for the people. Now, he submitted those things to the calm consideration of the noble Earl, and he appealed to his good sense and experience to determine whether, in the event of a general election, the country would not be so convulsed under this dictation as to render the idea of a free election of Representatives utterly impossible. When he reflected on this subject he naturally turned to the almost parallel case of 1799, and he found that at that period Mr. Pitt was seriously impressed with the necessity of putting an end to the similar societies which existed at that period. Mr. Pitt's propositions were these:—'I therefore submit, that whoever shall continue to be a member of such Societies, after a certain day to be named, shall have a small fine inflicted on him upon conviction before a Magistrate. There must, however, be degrees of guilt in the cases of individuals; I therefore wish to give an option with respect to the recovery of the penalty, or to proceed against the offender in a Court of Record, leaving it to the discretion of the Court to punish him by fine, imprisonment, or by transportation.'*** But as it is impossible to guard against all the various shapes and forms which treason may assume, it will be necessary to define those Societies, the members of which are to be subjected to the proceedings now proposed to be instituted against them. I will therefore observe, that their peculiar characteristics are contrary to every engagement prescribed by the Constitution, by morality and religion.'*** 'But, this is not sufficient; and it will be found requisite to accompany this measure by provisions against the owners of public and private houses who shall harbour such Societies.'***'The second object will be, to prevent the existence of other Societies which are evidently calculated to corrupt the morals and vitiate the understanding of the community,—I mean Debating Societies, in which questions are agitated little suited to the capacity of the audience, and which operate to loosen the foundations of morality, religion, and social happiness. In a former Session measures were adopted to prevent the delivery of political lectures, but attempts have been made to elude them by delivering historical lectures, which by misrepresentation, and the force of erroneous inference, are rendered equally dangerous. With this view of the subject, I trust there can be no objection to extend the proposed provisions to all societies where money is taken for admission; and that none shall be held unless licensed by a Magistrate, and liable to his inspection.'* Mr. Pitt then moved for leave to bring in a bill to suppress Societies established for seditious and treasonable purposes. He really thought that some law like this might safely be enacted at present, or that, at any rate, effectual measures should be taken to suppress the Unions; and his object in rising was, to ask the noble Earl, whether he meant to put the common law in force against those Societies, and whether, in case the common law was not sufficient, he should be prepared to adopt some more efficacious means of putting an end to Political Unions?

Earl Grey

said, that he was afraid that what he had to offer in reply to the noble Marquess would not be satisfactory to him, as the noble Lord had commenced his observations with expressing his dissatisfaction with the remarks which he (Earl Grey) made, on a late occasion, with reference to the bodies called Political Unions. If he remembered correctly what had then fallen from him, he allowed that these Societies, were inconsistent with the well-being and good government of the country in ordinary times, but he had stated, that as they were called into existence by the particular circumstances of the day, and were but the creatures of its excitement, he thought it more prudent not to act with hasty severity against them, and that it was more wise to wait for the good sense of the people of England to put them down, than to have recourse to new laws, which might not be in exact accordance with the principles of the Hansard's Parl. Hist. vol. xxxiv. p. 986–7. British Constitution, and which experience had shown were not always competent to accomplish the objects for which they were intended. The noble Marquess had referred to a speech of Mr. Pitt's, but even there he would see that the example of that great statesman would not be in his favour. He would find that few of the laws which Mr. Pitt proposed to enact in that speech were ever carried into effect, and he would also find, that but little good resulted from those that had been carried into operation. He hoped it was not necessary for him to disclaim any participation in the sentiments which the noble Marquess had quoted on this and on a former occasion. In the instance referred to he had expressed not only his dislike, but his abhorrence and disgust at such language and opinions, and he still felt as strongly as ever on the subject. But with regard to the meeting at Gateshead, to which the noble Marquess now referred, he had seen no account of the proceedings, and he had as little to do with the speech of Mr. Larkins as he had with that person's violent speech at Newcastle. When the noble Marquess said that he (Earl Grey) was a friend of Dr. Headlam, the House should know that Dr. Headlam was not a gentleman to countenance such language, as there was no more respectable or loyal character in society, and it was not fair to hold him responsible for sentiments which were foreign to his nature. With regard to the speeches of Mr. Larkins, he (Earl Grey) had no reason to mitigate the censure which he passed on them on a former occasion, and the very passage which the noble Marquess had read showed in what manner that person proposed to deal with him. He repeated, that no one could have heard such language without disgust, and he thought it was rather too much to hold Dr. Headlam, as chairman of a meeting, or the meeting itself, which was composed of most respectable persons, and where much good was effected, responsible for the words of such a person as Mr. Larkins. It was an unfair rule to make any number of persons responsible for what an individual amongst them might say, and even their Lordships generally would be sorry to be held accountable for the language or sentiments of every noble Member of the House. With respect to the Political Unions, he could only repeat, that he looked to the good sense of the people to put an end to them. If they transgressed the law, he hoped the law as it now stood would be sufficient to correct them. In answer to the question of the noble Marquess, asking whether he had not an intention of applying for a new law, he had only to reply, that he had not. He had no such intention, nor had he any instructions from his Majesty's Government to propose it.

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