HL Deb 13 July 1847 vol 94 cc218-31

moved the Order of the Day for the Third Reading of the Militia Ballot Suspension Bill.


My Lords, Her Majesty's Ministers are responsible for the security of the country, and it is customary to leave to them the adoption of the measures they may think necessary for the attainment of that object; but when they ask us, as they do by this Bill, again to suspend a measure heretofore deemed to be of the greatest moment, as conducive to the security of the country, without proposing to substitute any more efficient measure of national defence, I cannot—taking into consideration the present circumstances of Europe and of this country—abstain from saying "Not content" to the third reading of this Bill. It is now eighteen years since, under the Government of the noble Duke at the Table (the Duke of Wellington), the ballot for the militia was first suspended; but how great has been the change in the relative position of this country and the States of Europe since that time! Can we now safely, as we might then, dispense with the militia, without substituting a better constituted force? It was Lord Chatham who first placed the militia upon its present footing. The preamble to the Act he passed shows his opinion of the measure. It is in these words— Whereas a well-ordered and well-disciplined militia is essentially necessary to the safety, peace, and prosperity of this kingdom. The militia, as established by that Act, and the Acts since passed for its amendment, may not be a force raised and formed in the best manner; it may be unpopular from the inequality of its pressure; it may practically impose a personal tax of very partial operation; the men it brings into the ranks may not be always of the best description—and it may be expedient to review the whole system—but still a well-ordered and well-disciplined force, acting in reserve and support to the regular Army, is essentially necessary to our safety, and it is most imprudent to part with what we have, however defective, without providing a more efficient force to supply its place. Look, my Lords, at the changes which have occurred in Europe since the Session of 1829, when the militia ballot was first suspended. In the year following took place the Revolution in France, which substituted upon the throne of that country the House of Orleans for the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. From that time to the present, it has been the constant policy of the Government of France, cordially supported by the Chambers, to make the most extensive and efficient preparations for eventual war. It has done this, while constantly protesting that the whole object of its desire was the preservation of peace. I do not question the right of the French Government to make these preparations for eventual war. The object of these preparations is perfectly legitimate. Their policy is, in my opinion, unquestionable. They tend to preserve France from the aggression of other Powers, by making them sensible that she cannot be attacked with impunity; but while I admit that France is justified in making these preparations with purely defensive objects, I cannot but be aware that every measure which increases defensive strength, must tend to increase offensive force, by rendering disposable the troops which would otherwise be required for defensive purposes. Whatever makes France more capable of defending herself, makes her, at the same time, more capable of attacking us. If to make these preparations be good policy on the part of France, to make no corresponding preparations cannot be good policy on our part; and to throw away, as is now proposed, the means of defence given by the Militia Act, must be a step of unjustifiable imprudence. But the change which has taken place in the position in France is not the only change which time, the greatest of all innovators, has effected in Europe since 1829. The Revolution in France was immediately followed by the Revolution in Belgium, the result of which was the separation of Belgium from Holland; but the union of those two countries under one government was the only direct compensation which we received at the general peace for all the sacrifices we had made during the war. The statesmen of 1815 termed the new kingdom of the Netherlands, brought into communication with Hanover by the cession of Fries land, our tête de pont upon the Continent. Within that tête de pont, we then, of Netherlands and Hanoverian troops, were considered to hold disposable, in support of our continental policy, an army of 100,000 men. Now, not only is Belgium severed from Holland, but the feelings of the Dutch are, it is to be feared, alienated from us, by our participation in the acts of the Powers by which that severance was sanctioned; and further, a more recent event has placed the Crown of Hanover upon an independent head, and given a purely German character to the policy of that country, which, under former circumstances, might have been expected to be identical with that of England. Henceforward, we shall probably see Hanover in subordinate co-operation with Prussia, rather than with ourselves, and the 25,000 good troops she could have brought into the field, will be disposable for the maintenance of other views than ours. It is true that the Powers which sanctioned the severance of Holland from Belgium declared that in all future wars Belgium should be a neutral State. I do not attach much value to such an engagement, which could hardly withstand the shock of actual war. Even if this engagement should be adhered to, it would increase the aggressive power of France, by giving to her entire security on an exposed frontier possessing no natural strength; but it is much more to be expected that Belgium will in a future war act as the ally of France, than that she should scrupulously observe the neutrality imposed upon her by these diplomatic transactions. But without reference to these great changes in the territorial divisions of Europe, and in the probable policy of some of its States, the relative resources of England and of other European States are no longer what they were in 1829—much less what they were in 1815—and it must be remembered that all power is relative. Great as has been the advance of this country in manufacturing and commercial and agricultural wealth, and in all the material elements of national prosperity, the advance of other countries of Europe has been still more rapid. The Peace found us in a state of progress; and that progress has been continued almost without a check; but the Peace found other countries in a state almost of suspended animation. Long and disastrous war had paralysed their productive energies. Peace gave to them a new existence. It was like the spring of the Arctic regions, which calls at once into life all the dormant vitality of nature. Since that period all Continental States have turned their attention to their currency and credit. In 1815 this country alone could raise a loan on any other than the most disastrous terms. Now, all States, although not equalling us in the extent of their credit, have at least the power of raising loans on no very onerous conditions; and the Emperor of Russia, the chief of the greatest military State, has lately appeared as the possessor of a large treasure—a circumstance unknown in European history. But what, in this general increase of wealth, and of resources amongst European States, most affects our position, is this—that, however great has been their improvement, in comparison with the improvement of this country in other respects, it has been most marked in the relative increase of their commercial marine. Further, the discovery of steam navigation, and the establishment of railroads, have, of late years, made a very disadvantageous change in the relative position of this and other States. A noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, on some occasion, represented this country as now joined to the Continent by a steam bridge. The expression was strong certainly, but it was not very far from correct. In former wars, our strength at sea, and all the uncertainties of navigation, arising out of tides and winds, rendered the Channel a defence almost always to be relied upon for the protection of our coasts from invasion; but now, not only must we disseminate our force much more for the simultaneous protection of many points all equally threatened by a novel arm in war, which may at once strike so many distant towns and harbours without affording notice of its approach, but the temporary superiority of the enemy in the Channel, even for a few days, would enable him to throw a mass of force, of almost any extent, upon any part of our coast: and it must be remembered, that while formerly much time was required to effect the concentration of a large number of troops, and to move them with all their materials, so that war could not be entered upon by surprise, now, a few days would suffice to bring together, to the points of embarkation, a preponderating force. Undoubtedly, railroads will also facilitate the defence of points attacked; but they afford the greatest advantage to those who assume the initiative. These are all circumstances in the general state of Europe which must permanently affect our future position; but there are, at the present moment, other circumstances well deserving your Lordships' consideration, as having an important bearing upon the security of the peace we are asked so confidently to rely upon. In France, we see at once in operation three distinct elements of change—each of itself sufficient to create anxiety—we see a distressed people, the State involved in financial difficulty, and the Go- vernment discredited by the recent disclosures of corrupt practices amongst eminent public men. These elements of change, all acting together, cannot but shake our confidence in the long continuance of the pacific relations of this country with France, The Government of France may desire the continuance of peace; but armies have proved to be sometimes too strong for their Governments, and have compelled the adoption of measures more in conformity with national passions, than with the dictates of prudential policy. There may exist, too, in the unprepared state of a wealthy rival, an inducement to sudden action, which even the most pacific Government cannot reasonably be expected to withstand. Then turn, my Lords, to the United States of America, and consider whether the events which are now passing there, afford us any ground for reliance upon the continuance of peace with them. For myself, I never regarded the settlement of our late differences with respect to Oregon, as more than a convenient truce accorded by the President to enable him to begin with the easier and more remunerative war with Mexico, and there to form the troops with which hereafter he might undertake, with improved prospects of success, the more arduous contest for Canada. Let not noble Lords suppose, because the Mexicans may not have proved themselves very dangerous enemies in the field, that therefore the Americans are learning nothing in this war. The most important things in war are not always learnt upon the actual field of battle. To move large bodies of troops in an enemy's country, presenting peculiar physical difficulties, with all necessary provisions of food and of military equipment—this, the great science, without which nothing of moment can be done, and by means of which all may be effected—this may be acquired in. Mexico, even although the Mexicans should not exhibit on their side much courage, directed by much ability; but even what we have already seen, shows that the Americans have, since they were last engaged in war with us in Canada in 1814, made vast advances in all that contributes to the efficiency of an army, and are a very different enemy indeed from that we beat so easily at Queenstown. In population, in wealth, and in the internal communications of their provinces by canal and railroads, all contributing to facilitate military operations, their progress has been far more important. Be assured, my Lords, that six months will not elapse after the return of a victorious army from Mexico, before some new subject of difference will be discovered to afford a pretence for discussions, carried on in no friendly spirit, which will impose upon us the necessity of deciding whether we will at once abandon our connexion with our North American Provinces, or resolve to defend them at any cost. But is there no other circumstance in our present position, which imposes upon us the necessity of peculiar caution? Can we in prudence, when we are calculating upon the policy which foreign States may pursue with regard to us, abstain from taking into our consideration the new difficulty which the condition of Ireland has now brought upon us? In the current year, we have been called upon to advance on account of Ireland ten millions of money. Ireland has required the presence of our whole disposable military force, and the service of the largest portion of our steam navy. War with more than one of the secondary States of Europe would have been carried on at less cost, would have occasioned a smaller diversion of our force; and can we indulge the hope that next year this state of things is to cease? Her Majesty's Government can have no such expectation. They do not look upon the crisis as past. It is true we have passed an Act, of which the object is to throw upon Irish property the burden of relieving Irish pauperism; but property itself is pauperised by a calamity like that which has befallen Ireland; and there is no rational ground of hope, that for several years the people of Ireland can be fed without having some recourse to the resources of England. To what extent we know not; but this we know, that until affairs in Ireland have assumed a new and settled form, adapted to meet the new difficulty which has arisen out of the failure of the article of food, which has hitherto been principally relied upon by the people, Ireland is to us a source not of strength, but of weakness. And it would be idle indeed to suppose that foreign nations do not see these things; that they do not perceive how much our power is impaired; and it would be indeed dangerous were we to depend upon their not taking advantage of our embarrassments, and were we not to make provision for our security against their hostility. We may rely too long upon the recollection of our former victories. It is true, that the memory of what has been achieved in former wars may give confi- dence to our troops; it may inspire our enemies with salutary apprehensions; but our former victories have also left upon the minds of our enemies deep-rooted animosities, and have engendered in them the spirit of revenge. They have created jealousies even in the minds of those we assisted with our arms; and be assured, my Lords, that we can only depend for our future security upon the known reality of existing strength, not upon the shadow of our past reputation in the field. I know we have all the means of successful war. Our troops and our seamen have all their former courage. The officers of both services have the highest spirit of enterprise. In twelve months, well employed in preparations, we could be again a conquering Power in every quarter of the world; but to effect this, time is necessary, preparation is required. Without preparation, nothing is secure. In war, time is everything; and means, great as they are, can only be brought slowly forward. France is already prepared. If superior force, or circumstances, should give her for three days supremacy in the Channel, she could throw upon our coasts an army of any extent; and what have we to oppose to it? Such an event may not be probable; but it is not safe to rely upon improbabilities, and upon the forbearance of a rival, who has so often been an enemy, and who has so many former injuries and defeats to resent and to revenge. We can only prudently rely for our defence upon our own intrinsic strength. If the sudden invasion I have supposed should ever take place—if the French should cross the Channel, as the Sikhs crossed the Sutlej—depend upon it they would not commit the errors which then saved India. London may be taken by surprise as well as Canton. We can no longer rely, as in former wars, upon the constant and secure dominion of the sea. We have no longer the supremacy of the sea. In the event of a war with France, we should have to fight for that supremacy, and a severe fight it would be; and for the commencement of that contest France is better prepared than we are. Neither, since the introduction of steam navigation, will a general superiority at sea give the same extent of security which was derived from that superiority when fleets were composed only of sailing vessels. Then the tides and the winds imposed so much uncertainty and delay upon the movements of maritime expeditions, that much time and a long undisturbed possession of naval superiority could alone afford any reliable expectations of success in conducting them upon a great scale. Now, steam navigation, almost independent of tides and winds, gives facilities to the most extensive combinations of force, and a degree of certainty to all calculations of time, upon the correctness of which success in war mainly depends. My Lords, no one, I can assure you, feels more strongly than I do the urgent necessity of preserving peace, if we can. I know that a large portion of the people of this country depend for food upon the uninterrupted import of foreign corn, and a yet larger portion upon the uninterrupted export of our manufactures for the means of purchasing their bread. Peace is become more necessary to all nations, as well as to us, although not perhaps to the same degree. The whole character of war is changed: formerly, it was the collision of independent bodies; now, so intimately are all nations connected by trade, war would be like the violent disruption of the same body, and its evils would be of the most overwhelming and appalling nature. It is to preserve peace, to obtain time and opportunity for all the moral and social improvements we desire, that I conjure you to place our means of national defence upon a stable and efficient footing. Surpassing other nations in wealth, we should not rashly hold out temptations to their cupidity, which even were their Governments to remain desirous of peace, their armies might be unable to withstand. We cannot safely remain unarmed in the midst of an armed world. We alone, amongst nations, have neglected the means of national defence. We feel everywhere the effects of our weakness. We have recently felt it in our diplomacy—diplomacy is mere empty wordiness, if there be no force at hand to back it. Is it to be imagined that Her Majesty's Government would have allowed Spanish troops to enter Portugal, which should for ever to them have been a forbidden soil—a soil so long under our special protection—had they had disposable a British force, by which the object, if they deemed it necessary, could have been accomplished? Or have they not, in fact been driven by Spanish policy to a measure against which their own better judgment revolted in the first instance, because they possessed no disposable force wherewith to prevent its execution by Spain? I know, my Lords, it is an ungracious task, and most unacceptable, to endeavour to show to your Lordships that our naval position is not what it was on the evening of the battle of Trafalgar; nor our military position what it was on the evening of the battle of Waterloo; but it is my duty to place before you what I believe to be the truth. A great change has been effected in the relative position of this country and the Continental States of Europe; a yet greater change in the relative position of this country and the United States of America. There are, besides, circumstances at present existing, which make our position at this moment one of peculiar anxiety. All I desire, is, that the Government and Parliament would provide in time against the danger by which, if it should suddenly come upon us, we should be overwhelmed. We have ships, it is true, in sufficient numbers, but we have not men; and a fatal blow might be struck at the commencement of war, which would involve us in unspeakable calamity. The greater progress made by other nations since 1815, has, in fact, impaired our position with respect to them. Long and persevering, but, above all, instant exertions are required to enable us to retain our station as a leading Power in Europe. Time would enable us to get together a force which would overcome resistance and confer security; but that time will never be given to us by an enemy who had the sense to direct his operations with vigour at the commencement of a war. Timely preparation is commanded by every consideration of prudence; and be it remembered that we cannot exist in a state of mediocrity and inferiority. To exist as an independent nation, we must be great and powerful in arms. I desire not war, but the security of the country from war; and this we can only have by being prepared for war, and so deterring our enemies from attacking us. In conclusion, my Lords, I earnestly conjure Her Majesty's Ministers, not rashly, as they propose by this Bill, to give up a reserve force, which, however objectionable it may be, is yet one to which recourse can be had, unless, at the same time, they substitute some other better constituted and more efficient force for the security of the country and the protection of the interests of the people.


could not help regretting that the noble Earl at the close of his speech should have said that the diplomacy of this country had been crippled from the want of a sufficient force to sustain it. He (Earl Grey) denied that allegation; he as- serted, and most confidently asserted, that this country had never yet flinched from maintaining in the very strongest manner what it believed to be its just rights. He (Earl Grey), for one, never would take part in carrying on its affairs if he believed that the persons by whom the Government was administered were prepared to act upon a pusillanimous principle. With respect to what had occurred in Portugal, he must inform the noble Earl that he was altogether mistaken in supposing that the course that had been adopted by this country in reference to Portuguese affairs, was taken in consequence of their inability to do what they thought to be right. He (Earl Grey) thought the expression of the noble Earl was, "they submitted to the dictation of Spain, because they had not the means of resisting it." Those of their Lordships who were present on the debate on the subject, would recollect that on that evening his noble Friend the President of the Council, when speaking on the question, had stated most distinctly the grounds on which Her Majesty's Government had acted. They adopted the course they had taken for a reason totally different from that which the noble Earl had stated. Spain might have acted without them, if they did not act; and the only reason why that should be acquiesced in was this—that under the circumstances Spain's own interest was involved; that she had, therefore, a right to act; that it was consistent with justice; and upon that principle they could not properly interfere with her. But he (Earl Grey) would not pursue that topic further. He entirely concurred with the noble Earl when he said that this country should always be prepared. He was prepared even to go further, and to say he concurred with the noble Earl in thinking that time had effected great changes in the course of the last few years, and that the military measures of the country had, perhaps, not kept pace with the exigencies of the times. If this Bill were really intended to give up any available means of defence which they new possessed, he (Earl Grey) would have concurred with the noble Earl in saying, that before they gave up one. system of defence—even though it were a faulty one—they should he prepared to substitute something better. But he would remind their Lordships that they were not giving up anything that now exists. The militia had now practically been in disuse since the Administration of the noble Duke who sat at the Table (the Duke of Welling- ton) in the year 1829. The ballot was then for the first time suspended; and, he believed, only once since—he thought in the year 1831—the ballot had been in force. At that time it certainly was found that it worked in a manner that was far from satisfactory, and that the expense was very much greater than the advantages derived from it. The truth was, that in the altered situation of the country, and the great change that had taken place in society, the machinery of the existing militia law was not calculated to meet the exigencies of the present time. If they were to have an effective militia—(and that they ought to have an effective militia, or some other effective force, he admitted, and entirely concurred in the statement of the noble Earl on that subject)—if they were to have an effective militia, it was necessary not merely to abstain from passing what was now a regular annual Bill—the Bill for the Suspension of the Militia Ballot—but they should look into the whole subject of the militia. They should consider what alterations were required, and what improvements were necessary in the system by which the militia had heretofore been constituted, and the arrangement of any new system that might be required. As he had already said, they had not had a ballot since 1831; and there was not a single man whose services they had at that moment a right to demand, except the officers and non-commissioned officers who were still kept on pay; but they had not for a number of years an opportunity for practice; therefore it was really not a question now whether they were to part with an existing force, but whether they were to create a new one. If their Lordships should think it necessary to throw out the Bill that was now on the Table of the House, the result would be that by law the ballot must take place; while, at the same time, no provision would have been made for the expense of that ballot, and for producing an efficient force. He (Earl Grey) thought it was hardly necessary for him to go further than he had gone; but, at the same time, he must state, that the attention of Her Majesty's present advisers had been directed to the subject not less anxiously than that of the noble Earl. It was most undoubtedly a subject in which they had the greatest interest; and the first fruits of their consideration of it had been already seen. His noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty had taken up a plan which already had been under the consideration of the Board of Admiralty that was presided over by the noble Earl opposite; and his noble Friend, taking up that plan, had actually organized a very efficient force from the workmen employed in the dockyards. He had, to a certain degree, organized a force that was capable of rendering efficient service to the country at a very short notice. It was, he admitted, only a beginning; but still it was a beginning in the right direction, and a beginning of no very inconsiderable importance. Their Lordships would easily perceive that, for very obvious reasons, he now refrained from stating what the other measures were which they might have in contemplation. He could only assure the noble Earl that the subject was one of whose importance they were deeply sensible, and which they would not fail to consider. He trusted they should be able to propose to Parliament, and that Parliament would adopt such measures as should be calculated to place the country in a more perfect state of defence, because he entirely concurred with the noble Earl in thinking that the best security for peace is to be thoroughly prepared to resist attack. He, therefore, was most anxious that their hands should be strengthened, and that they should have increased means of defence at their disposal; although, at the same time, he most confidently trusted that there was nothing in the situation of the country at the present moment that would lead them to have any apprehension for the disturbance of that tranquillity which had so long lasted, and which he hoped and trusted would long endure. It was most true, as the noble Earl had observed, that the more intimate connexion of nations by the increase of commercial intercourse that had taken place since the termination of the war, would add greatly to the calamities which war inflicts upon all nations if a contest wore now entered into; but that very circumstance rendered that contest still less probable than it otherwise might be. With that view he (Earl Grey), for one, attached the utmost importance to those measures which took away the trammels from commerce, and increased their intercourse with neighbouring nations. They were enabled to confer on each other blessings and increased abundance; and he looked to the measures of the last few years relieving commerce from the unwise restrictions by which it was formerly oppressed as of the greatest importance and advantage. He believed that it tended to lesson the danger of war; and that, by increasing the wealth and resources of the country, it increased our means and capabilities of defending ourselves in the event of hostilities being forced upon us. It was impossible to contemplate the result of the anxious year which had just closed without being struck by the beneficial, and in all respects most gratifying, effect which in times of remarkable calamity the commercial policy which had been recently adopted had exercised in increasing the revenue of the country, and with that revenue the means of making, in time of peace, befitting preparations for the season of war. In conclusion, he would only observe, that the measure now under consideration should have his unhesitating support.


was of opinion that his noble Friend behind him (the Earl of Ellenborough) had done a patriotic service to the country, and one which could not fail to secure for him the approval even of noble Lords opposite, by the statement which he had just made with his usual force, and in his characteristic, clear, manly, and nervous style. That opinion he (Lord Brougham) held unaffectedly; but while he did not hesitate to give expression to it, he thought it right to state that he should very much lament if it were to go forth that there was any, even the least, ground for alarm in this country on account of the state of our naval and military preparations. It was perfectly true that nothing could be more foolish, nothing more indicative of alienation of intellect, than a reluctance to look risks and perils manfully in the face, for nothing could tend more powerfully to disarm risks and perils of their evil consequences than the practice of boldly doing so; but he nevertheless would be very sorry that it should go forth that there was the slightest ground for apprehending that by reason of the weakness of our naval and military resources we were in such a state of imbecile preparation as might operate by way of temptation to unprincipled politicians in other countries. He said this with reference to what he deeply deplored being under the necessity of alluding to, and with reference to what he had hoped never to have been obliged to allude to, namely, the unprincipled and grossly dishonorable course of conduct pursued of late in other parts of the world by nations pretending to be lovers and votaries of freedom. Those scandalous breaches of common faith on the part of other countries had hound the nation together as one man in the determination to defend the glory and vindicate against them and their authors the honour of England. He did not anticipate war, certainly, in Europe, nor did he even expect it on the other side of the Atlantic; but there was one source of comfort which would also he a source of strength to this country, in any contest which she might be called upon to engage in. That source of strength, which they never before had enjoyed, he ventured to say they would now be found to possess, namely, that if any Power, either near or far, should dare to make war, or to do that which our honour as a nation required us to resent, there would not be found, in that House, or in the other, or in any portion of the community, either within or without doors, one single voice to be raised against calling forth all the resources of the empire, so that at length, and probably for the very first time in our history, we should he found in the position—toto certandum corpore regni.

Bill read 3a, and passed.