HL Deb 19 March 1868 vol 190 cc1880-3

, in moving for a Return of the Special Constables who had enrolled themselves in the different parishes of the Metropolis after the explosion in Clerkenwell, said, that possibly a short time ago the Notice would have more easily commanded the attention of their Lordships. The part which devolved upon the special constables at the close of last year and the beginning of the present may be no doubt a little overshadowed by the personal vicissitudes affecting party life which have more recently engaged attention from the world. A few weeks ago they were the topic of the press and of society. And one reason they have ceased to be so may be found in the tranquillity they were intended to establish. So long as alarm prevailed, the public eye was fixed upon them. The good effect they have produced may now be seen in the comparative oblivion they have fallen into. But as no record of the times would be complete un- less they were included In it, some authentic document as to their numbers seems to be required; those numbers being, in fact, an index of the disorder which prevailed, and of the loyalty which met it. There is thus sufficient ground for asking the Return. But it also rests upon a claim of more political importance. As yet no allusion has been made to the special constables in Parliament. No mark of approbation, no symptom of acknowledgment, has been informally or formally conceded to them. If an inquiry is made as to the nature of their services, the fact which stands out most conspicuously is that at the time of the Clerkenwell explosion, terror took possession of society, that special constables came forward in large numbers; that the demonstration of their readiness controlled the elements of danger; that no considerable breach of law has subsequently happened. But we must go a little further back to seize the essence of the function they performed, to measure the degree of obligation they imposed upon society. The real fact is that about November and December—it was frequently asserted at the time—the Executive, rather by a series of misfortunes, than any single lapse, had fallen into the lowest state of decadence and of discredit. It began in July, 1866. The Government at that time suffered in Hyde Park a deep and well-known humiliation, of which the visible result is still allowed to catch the gaze of all who by one direction enter the metropolis. From that moment it was felt that lawlessness might dare because authority, to say the least of it, had hesitated. In May, 1867, therefore, lawlessness effected a triumph more consummate—of which I need not specify the nature—as it was brought before the House, with his wanted power, by Lord Cowper. In the middle of the autumn the rescue of the prisoners at Manchester did not tend to restore the fallen dignity, or re-invigorate the shattered force of the Executive. In November, a riotous assemblage felt themselves entitled—and, by what had taken place, undoubtedly they must have been encouraged—to take possession of the Home Office, at least to have a meeting in its walls; and after such an outrage on law, decency, and government, they all escaped with absolute impunity. After the executions which took place on the 23rd of November, processions were organized to insult the law, and to do honour to the criminals. They went on wholly unmolested by the Government, until municipal authority and public feeling overcame them. No wonder that the climax should present itself, and that a few weeks later it should be deemed possible and even prudent to explode by gunpowder a prison wall, in order to release political offenders it contained. If parks could be occupied in spite of proclamations of police, of military power; if a coup de main could rescue prisoners by daylight; if a Department of the State, close to the Horse Guards, could be invaded and insulted; to overwhelm a wall in a remote and little known part of the metropolis did not seem to be an enter-prize of ill-grounded temerity or uncalculating hardihood. The tragical result of the proceeding excited consternation in society. In point of fact, under the form of special constables, society came forward to defend itself, and was driven to the course it would adopt, if law, police, and Government were all suspended in the country. In such a state of things it is by organizing and arraying special constables that the public is enabled to do for itself what its appointed guardians betray their incapacity to do for it. A vigour greater than its own is thus communicated to the feeble will and torpid hands of the Executive. Regarded in this light the special constables who recently enrolled themselves were more important than those of 1848. On the well-known occasion which drew them forth upon the 10th of April of that year, there had not been any previous triumphs of disorder, or any previous disparagement of the Executive. At that time the demonstration might do something to augment the force; but in December last it had done more to revolutionize the weakness of a Government. I will only detain the House by one more remark, to illustrate the true position of the body I refer to. The striking inability of the Executive, since July, 1866, has been usually described to some deficiency or error on the part of Mr. Spencer Walpole. Mr. Walpole had been long known to the world, and had given no reason to expect that he would be unequal to the maintenance of order, so far as it depended on his office. Between his resignation and the event of December last, no visible improvement had taken place under his successor, whose personal capacity had not been called in question. The real cause of the inherent weakness in defence of law which has characterized the Government ought not to be traced so much to indi- viduals as to circumstances. From the beginning they have been without a Parliamentary majority. The late Minister (Earl Derby), in a passage frequently referred to, had enumerated the many deep humiliations which await a Government to whom that essential basis is denied. One, however, he omitted, which might well have been included in the series, that such a Government, aware it does not fully represent the nation it ostensibly controls, is constantly obliged to truckle to disorder, with a view to escape unpopularity. So long as such a system is permitted to endure, society must defend itself against the movements which attack it. On grounds of policy, as well as justice, it is therefore worth while to show the special constables that they are not forgotten by the Legislature. A Return of this kind is no doubt a most inadequate acknowledgment of what they have effected; but I could think of no other which appeared to be consistent with our usages and precedents. If it is not possible to offer any tribute to their merit, it may be worth while at least to notice their existence. The noble Lord concluded by moving an Address for— Return of the Number of Special Constables who have respectively enrolled themselves in the different Parishes of the Metropolis after the Explosion in Clerkenwell.—(The Lord Campbell.)


said, there was no objection to the production of the Return.

Motion agreed to.