HL Deb 17 June 1833 vol 18 cc852-7
The Earl of Winchilsea

felt himself obliged to put a question to the noble Earl opposite, for he thought it essential that the House should be informed whether it were the intention of his Majesty's Ministers to bring forward any measures during the present Session for the suppression of the Political Unions. He could assure the noble Earl that he was not in the slightest degree actuated by any party feeling or captious motives, but that he was solely influenced by a sincere wish to remove whatever tended to disturb the peace or to diminish the prosperity of the country. All who heard him must recollect the acknowledgment in that House that the Political Unions were actuated by a spirit and established upon principles totally inconsistent with all government, and it would be recollected also that a hope was entertained that these Unions would die away of themselves if they were left to the good sense of the people. Experience, he thought, must have by this time convinced noble Lords that if they waited for the good sense of the people to suppress these Unions they would have to wait too long. They might wait until some occurrence of public distress induced these Unions to act on the passions instead of on the reasons of the people, to the danger of the public peace. It was the duty of his Majesty's Ministers to take this question into their consideration, for it was impossible for the House to look at the number and position of the Political Unions, and to consider the spirit by which they were guided, without feeling that they were inconsistent with the tranquillity and prosperity of the country. He trusted that the noble Earl would call on that House to adopt some measure on the subject of these Unions, which would provide for the preservation of public tranquillity.

Earl Grey

gave the noble Earl credit for his assurance that he was not actuated by party feeling or factious motives, but solely by a sincere desire to promote the public interests. He only begged the noble Earl to give his Majesty's Ministers credit for the same feelings, and he could assure the noble Earl that Ministers would never neglect their duty by not proposing to that House whatever measures they might think necessary for the public good, In answer to the question of the noble Earl, he must at once declare, that it did not appear to him at the present moment to be necessary or at all advisable to introduce any new law whatever with respect to the Political Unions. He had never concealed his opinions as to the nature and tendency of those Political Unions, nor had he hesitated to declare his conviction that they were totally inconsistent with good government, as they were established solely for the purpose of effecting a control over the Houses of Parliament. To suppress any attempt of this kind he trusted and believed that the power of the law, as it already existed, was sufficient. This power of the existing law, he could assure the noble Earl, Ministers had given no proof of an indisposition to use and exert whenever they should deem it necessary; but it did not appear to him to be advisable to propose any new law to Parliament; and in answer to the question of the noble Earl, he should say, that Ministers had no intention to propose any such measure.

The Earl of Eldon

could not suffer the subject to pass without seriously adverting to the great number of inflammatory and seditious publications which had issued from the Press, and been circulated through the country for the last two years. He did not advocate the bringing forward any new laws on the subject, for thousands and tens of thousands of the most seditious publications were constantly in circulation, which required no new law to suppress them, but which might be punished by the common law of the country. For the honour and Security of the country such publications ought to be suppressed, and yet no notice had been taken of them by Ministers, except to see whether they bore a fourpenny or a sixpenny stamp duty. The House could not be ignorant that a mass of infamous and seditious matter had been passed over thus lightly. If Ministers acknowledged that the existence of the Political Unions was inconsistent with the good of the country, the common law might long ago have put them down. It was the duty of those who had to protect the Monarchy of the country—it was the duty of those who had to protect that House from libel lous attacks—not to suffer the attacks which Were constantly thrown out against both. It was the bounden duty of Ministers, by carrying the common law into execution, to put an end to such proceedings. He asserted further, that it was the duty of those who were to protect the Monarchy— to protect the House—to proceed without delay. Threats were daily thrown out against the House, and it was the duty of Ministers to take care that the common law was put into vigorous execution. He very well remembered—indeed, nobody could forget—that the other House of Parliament was urged to send down a Commission to Nottingham, but the Motion was opposed. What happened afterwards? Not more than three months elapsed before the Bristol riots occurred. They would never have been committed had the common law been duly enforced upon the offenders at Nottingham. But the case of Nottingham was improperly dealt with, and three months afterwards the conflagration at Bristol took place. An individual had sent to him information of the distribution of the most inflammatory and seditious papers, at a penny each, in Bristol, and had declared that if the circulation of such papers were not suppressed, that would happen which afterwards did happen. He contended that the Attorney General should have gone down to Nottingham, and the subsequent mischief might have been prevented. The common law was such that it might have put an end to the Political Unions long ago, to those Political Unions which the noble Earl at the head of his Majesty's Government had himself stated were inconsistent with the good government of the country. He might be allowed to ask the noble Earl now whether his experience of the good sense of the country had justified his confidence? Let him look at the newspaper attacks on that House within the last three years, or even, continued the noble Earl, within the last three days, and let him say whether the common law ought not to have been put in force in order to put them down.

Viscount Melbourne

had no difficulty in stating his entire concurrence, in the opinion that Political Unions might be in the highest degree pernicious; that their tendency was to overthrow good government; and, therefore, that they were disadvantageous to the general interests of the country. But the noble and learned Lord had introduced fresh matter upon this occasion, by referring to the numerous publications of a seditious character. Every body knew that the question of prosecution for libel was entirely a matter of prudence and expediency, and no persons ought to feel that more strongly than the members of the late Administration, who had instituted many prosecutions, but with no great suc- cess. He did not say, that they were improperly instituted; but merely that it was always a question of prudence and expediency whether it was fit to engage in them. The most effectual means had been adopted in some instances to check the distribution of libellous publications; and the persons principally, if not almost entirely, employed in the most seditious and violent of them were at present under prosecution by the Stamp Office. He begged to state, that some of the most objectionable publications had recently been selected for prosecution by the Law Officers of the Crown, who were charged by the noble and learned Lord with neglect of duty. He knew that the number of prosecutions bore but a small proportion to the number of publications; but it was always a serious point for the consideration of Government, whether legal proceedings did not injuriously draw the attention of the public to the libel, making the parties accused perhaps objects of pity and compassion, rather than of hatred and indignation. The noble and learned Lord had now said of unions what he had said upon nearly every other occasion—"What need of your statutes? Why do you not prosecute at common law? That alone is sufficient." The number of libels was as great—they were as rife when the noble and learned Earl was at the head of the country—he meant when the noble and learned Earl was Lord High Chancellor of England—as at the present moment. They were then to the full as bitter and virulent. He could produce proofs of his assertion in great numbers. And these libels were as much suffered to pass unprosecuted then as similar libels had been in the recent times to which the noble and learned Earl had chosen to call their attention. The noble and learned Earl passed from the libels to make remarks upon the riots at Bristol, and then the noble Earl spoke of the riots at Nottingham, and said, that if the one had been made the subject of due notice, the other would never have happened. Why, they occurred within a fortnight of each other. That remark, therefore, was without foundation, and no charge against the Government could fairly be founded upon it. The Attorney General went down to Bristol; it was true he did not go down to Nottingham, and indeed the inquiries occurred with respect to time, so near each other, that it would have been almost impossible for the Attorney General to have attended to both; but even if he had been able to do so, as it was well known that that hon. and learned person represented at that time the town of Nottingham in the other House of Parliament, it was evident that, in reason, in prudence, in discretion, and in common sense, there was ample cause for his not going down to Nottingham to conduct the prosecutions on the part of the Crown. But though he did not go, a Special Commission was issued, under which three persons were convicted and executed. Having given such explanation—an explanation which he hoped would be satisfactory to every reasonable mind—it only remained for him to repeat that it was the determination of his Majesty's Government at the present moment, as it had ever been since they took office, to maintain with rigour and due firmness the supremacy as well of the law as of Parliament, and to take every means to repress any disposition for violence or outrage that might, during their continuance in office, manifest itself throughout the country.

The Marquess of Londonderry

did not rise so much to state his individual opinions as to how far the temporising sufferance of Political Unions by the present Administration, was compatible with public safety, as to express his heartfelt thanks to the noble Earl (Earl Winchilsea) for having so properly introduced the subject to their Lordships' notice. To him it was a matter of unfeigned surprise, that the Ministry should continue to express their approbation of Political Unions, for those Unions had long since ceased to express their approbation of Ministers. Indeed, if he was not much mistaken, the only opinion to which those bodies had for some time given expression was—and a very proper, sound, and discreet opinion he considered it to be—an opinion of detestation and utter contempt for the noble Earl at the head of the Administration, and for every member of whom that Administration was composed. What took place in many parts of the north of England was a satisfactory attestation of the existence of that opinion. The utmost, therefore, he could say for the noble Earl was, that his present determination not to take any steps to put down those Unions, argued an absence of selfishness for which he deserved full credit, for, had he been otherwise disposed, he would have availed himself of the opportunity held out to him, and signed the death-warrant of those political associations, the existence of which could not, under peculiar circumstances, fail to prove annoying.

Lord Segrave

simply rose to assert, and he did so from his own personal knowledge, that had it not been for the institution of Conservative Clubs, organized by those very parties who so loudly decried Political Unions, there would now be scarcely a single Political Union of any kind in existence throughout the country.

The Earl of Eldon

had only to observe, in reply to the observation of the noble Baron, if reply it required, that Conservative Clubs were only called into existence on its being found that during the continuance of the present Administration the suppression of Political Unions was not to be expected.

Lord Segrave

would still assert, that Political Unions would have one and all dissolved of themselves if it had not been for the formation of Conservative Clubs.

The Earl of Eldon

said he would only trouble their Lordships with one observation in reply to the latter assertion of the noble Baron. He defied that noble Lord to make out such a proposition as that to which he had given utterance, to the satisfaction of any man in the kingdom, be his political feelings what they might.

The conversation was dropped.