HL Deb 04 May 1868 vol 191 cc1686-92

My Lords, your Lordships will naturally be anxious to know what course Her Majesty's Government have thought it right to take after the division which occurred in the other House of Parliament on Friday morning. I have, therefore, to inform your Lordships that on Friday afternoon Her Majesty was most graciously pleased to give the Prime Minister an audience. At that audience the Prime Minister thought it his duty to begin by informing Her Majesty of what had taken place in the House of Commons; and, after reminding Her Majesty of the circumstances under which the late Government was formed under the Earl of Derby, and also of the circumstances under which the present Parliament was called together, the Prime Minister stated to Her Majesty that he thought her advisers were, by constitutional precedent, justified in asking Her Majesty for a dissolution of Parliament. But he added that, if Her Majesty thought that, under the present exceptional circumstances of public affairs, it were more desirable for the country that Her Majesty should call upon other servants for advice, her present Ministers were ready to tender their resignations to Her Majesty, and they did actually tender them for Her Majesty's acceptance if Her Majesty so pleased. Her Majesty said that she would take this advice and statement into her consideration: and accordingly on the next day she was pleased to give the Prime Minister another audience. At that audience Her Majesty was graciously pleased to say that she would not accept the resignation of her Ministers, and that she was ready to dissolve Parliament whenever the state of public affairs would permit.



My Lords, before the House is adjourned, I should wish to make a single observation upon the explanation we have just heard from the noble Lord who represents her Majesty's Government in this House. So far as I understand it I cannot acquiesce in what has fallen from that noble Lord. It would seem that an almost unprecedented stale of affairs has come upon us, and—without venturing to express any opinion as to what is the present state of public opinion throughout the country — I beg to say that, for my own part. I do not wish it to be considered that I am committed to anything like an acquiescence in the propriety of the course which it appears is about to be pursued by Her Majesty's Ministers. The noble Earl stated that Her Majesty's Government, on being defeated in the other House of Parliament had, according to constitutional precedent, a right to ask the Crown for a dissolution of Parliament. I must beg to protest against that doctrine. What we used in former times to hear was this—that, when there was strong reason to believe that the House of Commons had misrepresented the feeling of the country, it was open to Ministers to appeal to the country in order to ascertain whether that feeling had or had not been rightly represented by the House of Commons; but that unless there existed strong grounds for believing that such a difference of opinion existed, the opinion expressed by the House of Commons must be considered to be that of the country. The noble Earl whom I see sitting opposite me (the Earl of Derby) will remember that this was the doctrine which was held in 1831 with regard to the dissolution of Parliament upon the question of Reform; and that the then head of the Government never concealed his opinion that that was a measure which, in his opinion, he should not have been justified in recommending, had he not felt assured that the course he proposed to pursue would be ratified by the decision of the nation—in fact, he considered that he would only be justified in taking such a course by success. I wish to make these general observations on the constitutional principle, as I do not believe that the mere fact of the Government being defeated is in itself a justification for an appeal to the country.


My Lords, I cannot help thinking that the noble Earl who has just sat down has somewhat misunderstood the statement which my noble Friend made to your Lordships. My noble Friend was careful to point out that the advice tendered to the Crown by the Prime Minister was based, among other things, by the circumstances under which the present Parliament was elected. If your Lordships will carry back your recollection you will remember that the present Parliament was elected in 1865, at the time when the late Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister. Your Lordships will agree with me that, without entering into any argument as to the merits or demerits of the great question which has lately occupied the House of Commons, a more important one at no time ever engaged its attention. What was the issue presented to the country at the time the Parliament of 1865 was elected? Was the country at that time asked by the noble Lord who was then Prime Minister to express its opinion with regard to the disestablishment of the Irish Church? So far from that being the case only a short year or two years before the dissolution, Lord Palmerston, through the Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant, one of his subordinate Ministers, declared in the House of Commons that so far as he was concerned no consent to any measure of that kind would be given. I speak, my Lords, from recollection of the words which I myself heard Sir Robert Peel, when Chief Secretary of the Lord Lieutenant, use, when he said he spoke in his own behalf and on the part of the first Minister of the Crown. It was under these circumstances that the country was asked to elect new representatives in 1865. We may entertain among ourselves opinions which may differ as to what view will now be taken by the country on this question; but in this all will agree, that, under such circumstances, the Parliament which was elected in 1865 is not a Parliament from which the opinion of the country can fairly be elicited; and that there should be an express appeal to the country on an issue of this kind.


I must confess the noble and learned Lord has rather added to my astonishment than diminished it by what he has said. For what does it come to? It comes to this—that the country is to decide upon every particular measure; and that, because this particular measure was not under consideration when the present Parliament was elected, therefore it is not competent to the present Parliament to deal with it. The very same thing might have been said, if there was any force in the argument, with reference to Reform. When the Parliament of 1830 was elected the great question which was afterwards brought before it had attracted but very slight attention; for it was the Revolution in France which first laid serious ground for public opinion. The argument used would have applied as much to that occasion as to the present. Further, it has always been held that what the country is to decide upon is the confidence to be placed in certain persons as their representatives, and having elected these persons, it is the duty of such representatives to exercise their judgment upon the measures brought before them. The House of Commons is not a meeting of delegates, but of persons authorised to exercise their own judgment and discretion on the great questions which concern the interests of the country. To say that Parliament is not competent to settle a question because it was not under consideration when that Parliament was elected, is, in point of fact, to say that Parliament is a mere assemblage of delegates, who can only express on each question the feeling of their constituents, and not a body elected to exercise their deliberate judgment on the questions which come before them. Such a doctrine is totally at variance with the opinion of our greatest statesmen, and it is one from which I, for one, entirely dissent.


The noble Earl has put into my mouth expressions winch I never used. I did not say that Parliament was not competent to deal with the question; what I did say was that a vote on a subject of great national importance arrived at by a Parliament elected under circumstances which I endeavoured to describe, offered exactly one of those occasions on which the Government of the Sovereign, in the exercise of their constitutional right might fairly tender to the Sovereign that advice which on this occasion has been given.


I think, my Lords, it must be admitted that this discussion in the House of Lords is somewhat anomalous. We are now waiting to know what the House of Commons think of the present state of affairs. So far as I can understand, the Government gives no decisive opinion on the subject. The Government are in a minority in the House of Commons, and under such circumstances the usual course is either to resign or to appeal to the country. I am perfectly aware of all the difficulties of the case. The Government say if they at once make an appeal to the country it will involve the necessity of a second dissolution within a very short period. Do Her Majesty's Government mean to appeal to the country at once, or only so soon as the state of public business will allow them? Is the appeal to be put off until next February? because, if so, Parliament would be in this position—We have two Reform Bills before us which are necessary to a dissolution—is the Government in a position to carry those measures through Parliament? Or is it, on the other hand, intended that, as soon as the money necessary to carry on the business of the country has been voted, Parliament will be dissolved? I should like, if possible, to know what course the Government means to adopt.


I can assure the noble Duke that the Government have made up their minds very distinctly on this matter, and I cannot help thinking that the noble Duke was absent when my noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal made his statement to the House. Had the noble Duke been present he would not have made the remarks he has just made. I can only recapitulate to the noble Duke imperfectly what my noble Friend stated so clearly as to the position of affairs at this moment. The Prime Minister, on the part of his Colleagues, tendered to his Sovereign the resignation of their offices on Friday afternoon. Her Majesty took time to consider the matter, and received the Prime Minister again in audience on Saturday. Her Majesty expressed her unwillingness to accept the resignation of office tendered by the Prime Minister; and the result is that we still occupy the same position we did before, and intend to conduct the affairs of the country so long as we are able to do so; and in the event of any difficulties arising Her Majesty was graciously pleased to state that she would make no objection to a dissolution of Parliament. It, of course, will depend upon the state of affairs whether that dissolution shall be a dissolution under the existing constituency, or whether it shall be a dissolution under the new constituency to be formed under the Reform Acts; but Her Majesty was graciously pleased to state that she would make no objection to either course being adopted by her Advisers whenever they should see fit to tender to Her Majesty a recommendation on that subject.


My Lords, I must express my satisfaction that Her Majesty's Advisers have not resigned their offices; for I cannot disguise from myself that, owing to the course pursued by the Opposition during the present Session, a fair and reasonable opportunity of carrying on the business of the country has not been afforded to the Government. It was a most extraordinary circumstance that the very first night the present Prime Minister went down to the other House of Parliament to assume the reins of Government—on which occasion he was received on both sides with marks of cordiality and warmth—the noble Earl (Earl Russell) who is not now in his place, thought it becoming to deliver a most uncalled-for and bitter attack upon my right hon. Friend. Before the Government had actually been arranged, or the distribution of offices settled, the noble Earl came down and made that most unjustifiable attack on the First Minister of the Crown. The Ministerial party no doubt regret very much the loss which the country must sustain by the retirement of the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby); but it was clear from the long and distinguished services of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli), from the way in which he has raised himself by his own abilities, energy, and industry, to the head of his party in the House of Commons, he must naturally succeed to the office of First Minister when the noble Earl resigned. The least which the Prime Minister might have expected from Parliament was fair play, and that he has not received. After the adoption in last Session of the important measure of Parliamentary Reform, it was obvious that the necessary business of the present Session was to complete that great work by passing the Scotch and Irish Reform Bills, supplemented by the Boundary and Bribery Bills. Surely that business, in addition to the ordinary work carried on in every Session, was sufficient to occupy one Session of a moribund Parliament; and yet the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone), without notice, came forward with this question of the Irish Church, which up to that moment had never been heard of. The Parliament and country were, therefore, taken by surprise. I must, however, say that the noble Earl (Earl Grey) opposite, and another noble Earl not at present in his place, having raised the war-cry on that question, now, when they see the difficulties and the crisis which have arisen, make every excuse for the course they pursued. Then, may it not be said that an unfair advantage has been taken of the Ministry in bringing forward this question of the Irish Church at the present peculiar time, when it is so difficult to test the sense of the country? But if I know anything of the practice of Parliament, all I can say is, that an Administration placed in a minority in a Parliament not their own, have the undoubted privilege of appealing to the constituencies. Here, however, is a question brought forward at a time so inopportune that it is most difficult to deal with it in the usual way. I am rejoiced that the Government will not yield up their offices in consequence of the unworthy and unjustifiable attack that has been made upon them; and I challenge noble Lords on the Opposition Benches to say whether the Administration of this country has not been conducted with ability and success. I challenge them to say whether they can find fault with the Administration of the Government in any of the great Departments of the State? Can they find fault with the administration of affairs in reference to Ireland or in respect to the domestic concerns of this country? The able manner in which the foreign affairs of the country have been carried on merit entire commendation; and it redounds to the credit of the Government that they have brought the Abyssinian War to such a successful termination. Under these circumstances, it would be highly inexpedient and unusual if Her Majesty's Advisers were to resign their offices without making an appeal to the country on so great a question as this of the Irish Church; and I believe that the Protestant feeling of the country will be found opposed to the disestablishment of the Irish Church. However, I trust that, after what has occurred, the Opposition will see the error of their ways, and will not persist in that reckless and extraordinary course they have pursued on this question. Depend upon it, it will be better fur all parties to allow the ordinary business of the Session to be carried on, and to complete the great work of Reform; for nothing can be more important than to complete that great constitutional change upon which the future representation of the people is to be based.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.

Back to