HL Deb 18 May 1846 vol 86 cc728-33

moved that the Corn Importation Bill be read a First Time.


My Lords, it is not my intention on the present occasion to go into the whole merits of the question before your Lordships, nor to dilate upon the danger to be apprehended to the country from a repeal of the present Corn Law; but, my Lords, I cannot permit the Bill to be read even a first time without entering my protest against it, and making a few observations upon its principle. My Lords, I contend that Sir R. Peel was not warranted in proposing this measure, nor justified by the exigency he assumed in abandoning, as he has done, all protection to British industry; he who had advocated so eloquently and so unanswerably, as regards argument, for so many years, and who, moreover, with a large majority of the House of Commons, was returned in 1841 to support that advocacy. My Lords, I believe it to be a thing impossible that the measure can be laid upon the Table of your Lordships' House, without the violation of promises and the breaking of pledges. I, for one, my Lords, am very sorry to see, at the present day, that a great distinction is attempted to be drawn between public honour and private honour. Sir R. Peel is a man who bears a most unexceptionable character in private life—he is a man whose word is his bond at Tamworth; but, nevertheless, he does not hesitate to withdraw, at the very doors of the House of Commons, from an agreement proposed by himself, and unwillingly acquiesced in by the agricultural party in 1841. He throws over his former principles, he repudiates his former speeches, and he refutes with a negative all his own former arguments in favour of protection. Not content with this, Sir R. Peel not only yields to the clamour of his opponents, but turns round and joins them, abandoning his friends, through whose means he came into power, and giving his assistance to the Leaguers against those who had previously supported him, their only fault being, as I stated, my Lords, placing too great a reliance upon the stability of his principles, and reposing too generous a confidence in the consistency of his public character. Putting aside, my Lords, however, the danger which this Bill will bring about—and that it will bring about a vast amount of danger to the institutions of the country I see no cause to doubt—putting that aside, my Lords, I ask your Lordships if such conduct is to be pursued by a statesman, and the leader of a great party in the State, how can you retain the confidence of the people of this country in any Government—a confidence, my Lords, which I hesitate not to say is absolutely necessary for the well-being of this great country in the trying times that are approaching—and we know not how soon they may come? If the public at large can repose no confidence in public men, which will be the result of this measure, how can you, my Lords, hope to secure good government in this country, and anticipate and prevent that anarchy and confusion which are now so rife in the land? My Lords, I do not wish to speak harshly of any man, and I disdain to impute motives in political matters; but at the same time, my Lords, I must give expression to my deep regret at the events that have occurred in this country since last November. My Lords, Sir R. Peel had one straightforward course to pursue, but he did not pursue it. Instead of throwing up office, his course should have been to recommend to his Sovereign to dissolve Parliament, and appeal to the sense of the country upon the question at issue. As it is, the people of this country have had no voice in these great changes which he proposes. He should have gone to the country, my Lords, upon this question, and have asked every city, every borough, and every county in this great Empire, whether they had changed their sentiments on the subject, either because of some disease in the potato crop of the season, or for some supposed large collection of money made by the Anti-Corn-Law League? My Lords, he should have gone to the country, and should, in doing so, have asked the constituencies to release him and his servile followers from those engagements which led to their accession to power, and the overthrow of the Government which preceded them. My Lords, we have a strong Parliamentary claim against the progress of this Bill any farther; because it will be in your Lordships' remembrance that it was described, on its first introduction to the public notice, as part of a great and comprehensive plan within the contemplation of the Government. If this description be correct, I hold, my Lords, that we are perfectly justified in asking to see the whole of that plan laid upon the Table of your Lordships' House before we shall be called upon to give an opinion upon it. But my noble Friends of the protection party are willing to waive that objection. We are not prepared to ask for anything which would cause delay; and we are satisfied, therefore, to accede to the Motion which I am informed is to be made this evening, to fix the consideration of the whole question for this day se'nnight. We thus show that in the course we take in reference to it we have no factious motives, and that we are willing to waive all formal objections. Confiding in the justice of our cause, we only ask "a fair field and no favour," and we believe that with that fair field and no favour we shall be able to convince your Lordships that the arguments so ably and eloquently stated in another place in favour of that cause — arguments of which I am bound to say there has been no attempt at contradiction worth naming—we shall be able, I trust, my Lords, to induce your Lordships to do that which I deem your most paramount duty—namely, to prevent rash legislation in consequence of the clamour of interested individuals, who, better knowing the Prime Minister, knew how to work upon his fears, for they never could persuade him that his judgment was wrong until he lost his head by that feeling which, I am happy to say, is not a common one among the natives of this country—cowardly political fear.


I wish only to express my entire concurrence in the course my noble Friend proposes to take, and my entire dissent from every other word he has uttered. Nothing could be more fair, and candid, and open, and manly—in one word, in every way more fitting and consistent with the character and conduct of my noble Friend, than the course he has taken in objecting to the first reading of a Bill sent up from the other House, and in waiting to discuss the measure fairly and fully on this day se'nnight. But, my Lords, I enter in one sentence my solemn protest against its being said that a statesman who, yielding to reflection, and reason, and conviction, conscientiously changes opinions which he formerly entertained, and acts upon his altered convictions, has not only committed an act of dishonour—an act impeaching the integrity of his character, and lowering his fair fame and name among statesmen; but that a statesman, placed in such circumstances, is called upon to vindicate his honour, his integrity, and his motives. "But," says my noble Friend, "why not dissolve Parliament, and appeal to the people?" My Lords, I am guilty, if my right hon. Friend at the head of the Government deserves reproach for not dissolving Parliament on a great question like this; for I was a friend of the Reform Bill in 1831, and I never dreamed of dissolving Parliament and appealing to the people till we were defeated by the Parliament which was then assembled. If that Parliament had not been against us, who was wild enough to fancy that we ever should have dissolved Parliament in the spring of 1831? It may, however, be said that I was always a reformer—that I was always a supporter of Parliamentary reform, and that I had not changed my opinion on that question. But, my Lords, some of my Colleagues, some of my most esteemed Colleagues—if I mistake not, my noble Friend (the Duke of Richmond) himself, who now charges Sir Robert Peel with not dissolving Parliament and appealing to the people, did, upon reflection, honestly, conscientiously, and without the shadow of imputation resting upon them, come round to my great delight, to the great glory of themselves, to the great edification of that cause, and to the great benefit of the people of this country, and became advocates of reform; and they never proposed a dissolution, or talked of a dissolution, till the Parliament then assembled was found not so fit as we could have wished for effecting our objects.


I never voted against reform in the whole course of my life, and therefore the noble and learned Lord's attack upon me falls to the ground. I repeat that I never voted against the Reform Bill. I voted for it. My noble and learned Friend will recollect that, on the occasion to which he refers, Parliament was dissolved in the midst of a very violent feeling which existed throughout the country; but I do not find the advocates of free trade coming to this House with petitions in favour of the measures proposed by the Government. There is nothing like the agitation in favour of free trade that there was in favour of reform.


thought it would be as well if noble Lords did not allow themselves to be carried away by personal feelings in discussing a question of this nature. He had occupied a seat in their Lordships' House long enough to see many individuals, as well as those upon whom the noble Duke had made an attack, change their opinions on public questions; and he must observe that the noble Duke himself had repeatedly changed his position in that House. And yet the noble Duke charged the Prime Minister, who had had long and mature experience, with changing his opinion on a question of this nature! He (the Marquess of Londonderry) was prepared to give his unhesitating support to the measure of Her Majesty's Government.


I wish the noble and gallant Marquess would practise what he preaches. The noble Marquess deprecates personalities, and then he makes a violent personal attack upon me; but I am not surprised at it. I stated that I did not impute any motives to Sir R. Peel; but I was anxious, on this day, to express my opinion as to the conduct of the Government, in order that it might not be necessary for me to do so on the second reading of the Bill. I feel most strongly, and I think I have a right to do so, that a great body of persons in this country have been treated unfairly; and I determined not to smother my opinion, but to state it openly, let who might object to it. I took this course because I am most anxious that nothing of a personal nature should take place on the second reading of the Bill. I thought it more fair to all parties to say what I wished to say on the subject now.


said, he had not intended to make any personal attack upon the noble Duke. He regretted that the noble Duke should have made a personal attack upon Sir R. Peel, because their duty was to consider the Bill, and not the changes in opinion of the persons by whom it was proposed. He would only say, that the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond) had changed his opinions as often probably as any other person.


I am extremely glad to hear that it is the intention of my noble Friend on the cross bench to conduct the discussion which is to take place next week on this important subject on principles which, if adhered to, will command the approbation of the House. The noble Duke expressed a hope that there would be an absence of all personalities on the second reading of the Bill. I am not surprised that my noble Friend has exhaled his feelings on the present occasion; and I am particularly glad to hear that we are not likely to have a repetition of such an attack. I am glad of it, partly, my Lords, on my own account—but much more, I can assure the noble Duke, on account of my right hon. Friend who has been the special object of his bitter attack. I well know the situation in respect of this question in which I stand. I know the representations which may be made; I know the censures which may be cast upon me; I know what reproaches may be heaped upon me; but, my Lords, I am prepared to meet them on my own part, and on the part of those of my Colleagues with whom I share the awful responsibility of having introduced this measure. My noble Friend has talked of a distinction which, he says, prevails in our days between public and private honour. That, my Lords, is a distinction which I do not recognise; and I should not think that I retained my character privately, as a man of honour, if I could not maintain my public character in the same way. I beg to say to my noble Friend, whatever threats he may hold out— There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, For I am arm'd so strong in honesty That they pass by me as the idle wind, Which I respect not. Bill read 1a.

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