HL Deb 21 July 1840 vol 55 cc849-59
The Lord Chancellor

said, in moving the Order of the Day for the second reading of the Regency Bill, it was not necessary for him to do more than to request the sanction of their Lordships to its being read a second time.

The Duke of Sussex

said, that he had taken the liberty to rise first on this important discussion, and he had done so with great diffidence; but considering the peculiar situation in which he stood in this country, he thought that it was his duty towards his Sovereign and towards his family, to express his opinion on this subject, which, he believed, was in perfect accordance with that of their Lordships' House. He meant, however, to limit himself to those observations only which he thought it was expedient to make, and which, from various circumstances, he had never been able to communicate, although it was his most anxious wish and desire to do so. He had another desire in presenting himself to their Lordships, inasmuch as in the tone and temper in which he should take the liberty of addressing their Lordships, he trusted that he might follow the example of their Lordships, for it was an example that ought to be followed, and adopt that temper and moderation in which a subject of such magnitude ought to be considered, and on which, they would permit him to say, all party feeling ought to be laid aside. He had no wish to excite any angry feeling, still less to make any opposition to the bill brought in by his noble Friend, if he would allow him to call him so; but, on the contrary, he wished to follow the example which that noble and learned Lord had set them in his speech on the introduction of this bill—a speech not more distinguished for its perspicuity than its delicacy in relation to the subject in question. He had had some experience in regency bills. He had taken an active part, in the year 1811 or 1812, when the bill was brought forward which placed his late Majesty George 4th in the situation of Regent; and sorry he was, on looking back to the events which took place at that time, to remember how much of acrimony was then displayed on both sides of the House. On the present occasion, however, he was consoled to think that the illustrious lady, our most gracious Sovereign, in communicating her anxious wish to take the advice of her Parliament, in devising the best means to provide for the establishment of a permanent Government, should the sad event occur to which it was impossible to allude without the greatest pain, was not likely to encounter any of the difficulties which arose from the divided feeling of the Legislature at the period to which he had referred. But if the prayer of the nation at large, in which he was sure their Lordships would all fervently join, should be graciously listened to, the contemplated contingency would not occur. In all rightly regulated families, it was proper that the probable or possible contingencies of the future should be considered and guarded against; so that if it should please Divine Providence to deprive the family of its head, the affairs of the house should yet be left in such a state, that those who followed in the succession should be able to enjoy it with comfort and security. It was with this feeling that her Majesty now came down to Parliament to request its advice and assistance. It was seen that the previous precaution which her Majesty took had had a material influence upon her Majesty's health; he meant the first act of securing the succession to the throne to that illustrious relative of his, who, from holding a sovereign authority in another country, was not obliged at this moment to be present here. That illustrious Prince must feel most grateful for her Majesty's kindness and consideration. As the noble and learned Lord had well observed on a former occasion, contingencies were now threatened, against which it was proper to provide; and her Majesty had graciously communicated to their Lordships and to the other House of Parliament her wish to be instructed as to the best course to pursue, and her anxiety to concur in whatever measures might be deemed most fit. Upon a general view of the question, he perfectly coincided both with the principle and the general bearing of the measure proposed. But when he made that statement, he was bound at the same time to declare that there were some points, upon which, if he did not touch, he should consider that he was acting unfairly, and manifesting a want of interest in the welfare of the country which would be most unbecoming in him, the purport of the bill being to secure the rights and power of the Crown, in order to secure the liberties and rights of the people. As to the principle of the bill, it was one to which he had no objection. It involved and admitted the point for which he had contended when the Regency Bill of 1811 was under the consideration of the Legislature, namely, that it was unwise and unsafe in a regency, which by itself was not so strong as the sovereignty, that the ordinary power possessed by the sovereign himself should not be extended to the individual who was to discharge the functions of regent during a limited period. The strength of this argument increased in proportion to the extended duration of the regency. He was, therefore, of opinion, that the regent, whoever he was to be, ought to enjoy, during the period that he exercised the powers delegated to him, all the rights and privileges pertaining to the sovereign. The next point, which was, in fact, the first upon which the noble and learned Lord based his argument on introducing the bill, was the custody of the infant heir. The noble and learned Lord said, that the custody of the infant ought naturally to be left with the surviving parent. To that principle he also acceded. The noble and learned Lord, if he (the Duke of Sussex) remembered right, congratulated the House, and with great justice and propriety, upon the circumstances under which this question was brought forward for consideration. No moment, he said, could be more propitious for the settlement of such a question, because the three branches of the Legislature were at this time fully represented; so that the Crown had the means of supporting its own rights, whereas, on former occasions, and under different circumstances, the power of the Crown being in abeyance or dormant, the whole question was left to the determination of the two Houses of Parliament. This being the case, all the circumstances of the time being of so favourable a nature, why, he must be allowed to ask—why should not the Legislature, in providing for one contingency, go a step further, and take measures to provide also for another, which it was deeply to be desired might be averted,—which was not likely to occur, but which was, nevertheless, possible; and therefore, in his opinion, ought to be guarded against. These remarks, which he threw out with great diffidence, must be taken as a proof of the sincerity with which he was speaking. He assured their Lordships that he had had no communication with any individual out of doors upon this subject. From the moment that the question of the regency was agitated up to the period at which he rose to address their Lordships, he had never opened his lips—uttered one word, or expressed one opinion with respect to it. And why? because, from the delicacy of his situation, placed as he was nearest to the throne next after the precedency he had voluntarily resigned to her Majesty at the time of her Marriage; he felt that it would be unbecoming in him to express any opinion upon such a matter. Surrendering his own right of precedence, he had afforded to her Majesty a token of his own good will,—of his own readiness to meet her wishes, and at the same time he had exerted himself as far as he was able to reconcile adverse feelings in other quarters, to which he need not further allude, but which the illustrious Duke (Wellington) opposite would well understand. For the reason he had stated, he had hitherto been totally silent upon the question of the regency. Although it was a matter in which he might be well supposed to feel a deep interest, he would still venture to say that he had not manifested so much anxiety—although he felt it in his breast—to take up the subject, as was often exhibited in both Houses of Parliament to enter upon the discussion of much minor topics—such as turnpikes and railroads, and other matters of the like import. Restrained by the delicacy of his situation—by the duty he owed to his Sovereign, and by the affection he felt for his family—he had suppressed his feelings, and given no expression to his opinions till the moment he rose to address their Lordships. To come back to the point from which he had digressed—would it not be well for their Lordships, in providing a regency, to consider that the Regent himself might be subject to the same awful contingency as that which placed the delegated power of the Crown in his hands? Unless some step were taken to provide for that ulterior contingency, their Lordships hereafter, perhaps, might find themselves placed in the very situation from which the noble and learned Lord had congratulated them at the present moment as being free. He, therefore, begged to throw out as a suggestion, whether, in framing a bill of this nature, attention should not be paid to this subject, inasmuch as that their Lordships would see that should such an event unfortunately take place, the difficulty of providing for the exercise of the functions of the Sovereign, and for the custody of the infant heir, would be greatly increased. It struck him that this was important. It was not for him to say who would be the ' proper person to be selected as Regent in the event of the second contingency to which he had alluded; but without mentioning names he might be allowed to say that the propriety of devolving the duties of that sacred office upon another illustrious person, and of considering whether some provision to that effect should not be included in the present bill, were matters upon which he thought their Lordships might very properly exercise their better judgment. He had felt it to be his duty to bring this point under their Lordships' notice, and in doing so he thought he had afforded sufficient proof of the disinterestedness of his motives. Selfish or ambitious feelings were foreign to his character. He challenged the noble Viscount at the head of her Majesty's Government, who had known him long, and with whom he had had much confidential intercourse, to say whether, in any one thought, in any one act of his, he had ever shown a feeling of an ambitious character; or whether, whenever the pleasure of her Majesty, or the tranquillity of the country, or the regulation of the laws required the concession, the individual who had then the honour of addressing their Lordships had not sunk the pretensions of his own character at once, and on all occasions given the noble Viscount to understand that he would never be an obstacle to the adjustment of any matter in such a way as should be most pleasing to her Majesty, and most beneficial to the country. He appealed also to his illustrious relative (the Duke of Cambridge), who had been at the head of the government of Hanover for four-and-twenty years, whether in the affairs of that country, involving as they did many transactions of a very delicate nature—he had not invariably pursued the same course—deferring on all occasions his own feelings and own interests to the convenience of the Government and the welfare of the country. He now came to the consideration of another point which was suggested to his mind by an examination of the Act of Parliament passed in the year 1765, to provide for the establishment of a regency, in the event of the death of his Majesty King George 3rd. That Act was certainly founded upon a principle very different from that which formed the base of the bill now introduced. Having stated, however, that he agreed in the principle. of the measure now brought forward, he requested his noble and learned Friend to understand, that in arguing the point he was about to advance, he was not to be regarded as contending in any way against the principle of the bill. He was anxious to show what was the course of proceeding in 1765. It was certainly very different from that now proposed. The Houses of Parliament at that time thought proper to invest in the sovereign the right to nominate three individuals to be Regent in case of the demise of the Crown. And on that occasion—the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York then being only born—his Majesty was pleased to name Queen Charlotte as Regent, and in case of her demise, the Princess Dowager of Wales was to be her successor. At the same time his Majesty nominated a Council of Regency consisting of the male branches of the royal family, namely, his brothers the Dukes of York and Gloucester, Prince William Frederick, Prince Henry, who died, and, in addition, the Duke of Cumberland. What was remarkable, too, as showing the anxiety of his Majesty George 3rd to keep the royal family together, as Prince William Frederick and Prince Henry were not at that time of age, his Majesty was careful to make provision to secure their being brought in as members of the council as soon as they should attain their majority. He merely mentioned this to show the object of the King in 1765, and to render more clear to their Lordships' perception the difference that existed between the arrangements made at that time and those now proposed. He perfectly coincided in that part of the present measure which rendered it impossible for the Prince Regent to alter in any way the succession to the throne. He thought that declaration extremely conciliatory to the royal family, and one for which they ought to feel grateful to her Majesty as well as the Government. He thought it equally just and proper that the regent should be restrained from making any alteration in the form of worship or in the rights either of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland. Upon all those points the measure had his per-feet concurrence, and he had no doubt would have the concurrence of their Lordships also. He came now to say a few words as to the restrictions imposed by the bill upon the Prince Regent. Upon this point he trusted he should express himself with the same temper as that with which he had cautiously endeavoured to guard all his preceding observations. The point was not a pleasant one to touch upon, but he felt that he had a duty to discharge—a duty which the interests of the country demanded of him, and from the performance of that duty he would not shrink. But he should at the same time proceed with every feeling of delicacy and affection towards the distinguished person who had been chosen Regent, and in whose selection he perfectly agreed. To that distinguished person, as far as he knew him, he felt sincerely attached, inasmuch as that he had found in him a very amiable disposition, and at the time of his marriage had promised him his friendship. Upon that interesting occasion the Prince said he hoped that he might rely on his friendship. He replied that his friendship would be measured by the affection which the Prince evinced towards the Queen, and by the endeavours which he made to render her Majesty happy and comfortable. As long as he had proofs of such conduct on the part of the Prince, so long might his Royal Highness depend on his firm and steady friendship. The conduct of the Prince had been irreproachable, and his friendship had accordingly remained unshaken. But as he had already said, he felt that he had on this occasion a duty to the country to perform; and of that duty, whatever his own private and personal feelings might be, he would fearlessly acquit himself. He hoped that he should be enabled to do so with as much temper as firmness. He found that the only restriction imposed upon the Prince was, that he should not marry a Papist. A wise measure, no doubt; one intimately connected with the security of the country; one upon which the right of the royal family to the succession depended; one, a deviation from which would lose them the throne of these realms, because the compact which brought them here would then be broken, and the contract between them and the country forfeited and void. That restriction was, in his opinion, a just and proper one. But there were other points of consideration. He thought that their Lordships ought to bear in mind the youth of the illustrious individual who was to fill the office of Regent, and to remember that he must have passions like other young men. Therefore, if he were a member of the council; he for, one should say that it would be advisable, as well for the happiness of his Royal Highness as for the sake of setting an example of decorum to the nation in the person of the illustrious individual at the head of the Regency, that another alliance should be formed. There being no shackle upon the Prince's inclination—no law, fortunately for him—to prevent his marrying a subject, it would be for their Lordships to consider whether a connection of that sort would be proper. On the other hand, his Royal Highness might form a connection abroad, whether the Government approved of it or not. It was proper, he thought, that their Lordships should take these possible contingencies into their consideration. He thought that a restriction to this extent, that no marriage should be allowed to take place without the consent of the two Houses of Parliament, might be very desirable. At all events it was worthy of their Lordships' consideration. He was the more disposed to dwell upon this point, because it was remarkable that in the last Regency Act there was a clause enabling the Queen Dowager if she were Regent, or the Duchess of Kent if the Regency should fall on her, to marry a subject of this country, but not a foreign prince. This, in his opinion, rendered the point to which he had adverted more worthy of their Lordships' attention. He had ventured to make these observations to their Lordships, thinking that he should not perform his duty if he did not express what, upon reflection, he thought was worthy of their Lordships' attention. It was not his intention to raise any factious opposition whatever to the bill, because, as he had stated before, he felt bound to admit that he thought it was a wise bill, and one that he was sure would conduce to the happiness and tranquillity of her Majesty, who must naturally feel much anxiety upon the subject. To tranquillize her Majesty's mind previous to the time when she would be exposed to those sufferings which Divine Providence had sentenced all womankind to undergo, was he thought, the best thing they could do to promote her happiness. As he had already stated, he had availed himself of no opportunity of stating these ideas elsewhere. He had felt it his duty to give them utterance in that House, and having done so, he should be content to leave them to receive such an amount of attention and consideration as their Lordships might deem them worthy of receiving. It was his intention to support the bill. Upon a question of this kind there should be no difference of opinion. The interests of the country demanded that the Legislature should be unanimous. He had been long opposed to the noble Lords opposite, but had never ascribed to them any other object than that of the interests of the country. Hoping to fill their Lordships' hearts with the same kind feeling that actuated his own, he concluded by saying, "God's will be done."

The Lord Chancellor

observed, that the situation which the illustrious Duke filled, rendered it natural that he should take that opportunity of stating the views which he took of the measure now under consideration. It was natural that the illustrious Duke should feel great interest in the question, not only from the attachment which lie necessarily felt towards the Throne, but from the great regard which he had always shown for the interests of the people. It gave him great satisfaction to rind that the illustrious Duke concurred in the general plan and principle of the measure submitted to the consideration of Parliament. There were, however, two points upon which the illustrious Duke had made some observations, to which he would request their Lordships' attention for a very few moments. The first observation of the illustrious Duke went to this: that the provisions of the bill were not sufficiently comprehensive to meet every possible contingency. But it must be borne in mind that it would require the concurrence of two events before the contingency to which the illustrious Duke had referred could arise. And although it was the duty of Parliament, and consistent with the wisdom of Parliament, to make provision by anticipation for events which were dependent upon the duration of a single life, he apprehended it was not consistent either with the usage or duty of Parliament, or indeed with the principles of the constitution, to legislate by anticipation for a longer period than the urgency of the case demanded. It was highly improbable that there should not be an opportunity of again coming to Parliament to make provision against the second contingency to which the illustrious Duke had referred. For that reason it would, in his opinion, be most improper to legislate for it by anticipation. Their Lord- ships must see, that although they might provide for the termination of two lives, they could not accomplish the object completely, because whatever the number of lives that were included, still contingencies might arise by which those lives might cease to exist. The other point upon which the illustrious Duke had observed, was the different provision in the act of 1830. There certainly was a departure in the present bill from the scheme of that act. A provision contained in the former act had been omitted in the present bill, because the illustrious persons, who, by that act were appointed regents in a possible event, were both females. It was considered by Parliament, that the marriage of females was fraught with more danger than that of males; and by that act a provision was made with respect to the marriage of those illustrious persons. That did not apply in the present case. By a provision in this bill, the regent was not to leave this country; and it was not in the nature of things that a husband should be so little sui juris as to be incapable of exercising the responsible functions that had devolved upon him as regent; and it was not to be supposed that power would be exercised over him. Inasmuch as he had generally adopted the scheme of the act of 1830, but in particular instances had departed from it, he had thought it right to mention to their Lordships the reason that had induced him so to act. These were the two points to which the illustrious Duke had alluded. The opinion of the illustrious Duke was entitled to the greatest respect from their Lordships, and would receive it from him (the Lord Chancellor); but he trusted that the remarks he had made, would reconcile the illustrious Duke to the provisions of the bill.

Bill read a second time.

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