Friday, 29 June 2012

29th June 1812: The House of Commons debates the Prince Regent's message about the disturbances

Following the reading of the Prince Regent's message in the House of Commons 2 days before, on Monday 29th June 1812, the House of Commons debated the government proposals:

Lord Castlereagh brought up a large sealed packet of papers by order of the Prince Regent, being the information to which his Royal Highness had in his Message alluded, and which he stated should be laid before parliament.

Lord Castlereagh then rose and said, that the course of proceedings which he should recommend, would render it unnecessary for him now to trouble the House at any length that upon this important subject. He should first propose that the House should expresses its thanks to the Prince Regent for the Message his Royal Highness had sent, and should give its assurances that no time should be lost in taking the subject into consideration, by instituting such proceedings as might be deemed expedient. His lordship’s next proposition would be, that the papers here just laid upon the table should be referred to a Committee of Secrecy, not for the purpose of recommending any measures to the House, but merely of examining the private information communicated, of laying the substance of it before parliament, in such a form as would give the House a distinct and fair view of the actual state of the disturbances which had so long subsisted in the interior. By the Message the Prince Regent, however, it was by no means intended that government should be discharged from the burden of submitting to the country their opinion upon the subject, and of bringing forward such measures as to them appeared likely to correct the evil. His lordship would not now enter into these topics; since, after the committee should have reported, a much more fit opportunity would be afforded; and as nothing could be more injurious than that the matter should be prematurely discussed, so nothing could be more advantageous than that it should be fully and fairly investigated, that the opinions of all might be ascertained, and if possible accommodated. At present any disclosure even of the general outline of the plan proposed by ministers to be pursued, would only serve to excite feelings far better suppressed, and to lead to discussions far better postponed. His lordships reluctance did not arise from any unwillingness, or fear in exposing what course ministers would suggest, but it originated in an opinion that neither the House or the country being in possession of the fact, were not prepared for any measures founded upon those facts. On a former day an hon. and learned gentleman (Mr. Brougham) had adverted to delay, of which he accused government of being guilty in not calling for the aid of parliament at an earlier period of the session. His lordship felt confident that he should be able to persuade the House that it was to be attributed to a justifiable reluctance to solicit other aid, while there remained a hope that the established laws of the constitution would be found adequate to the exigency. With regard to what had fallen from the same individual as to the Call of the House, his lordship was prepared in a way that, he trusted, would prove satisfactory to the House, to shew, that previous to the discharge of the Call, ministers were not in possession of such intelligence as would authorize them in resorting to the legislature: he was also ready, at the proper time, to detail to the House those particular circumstances which had subsequently occurred, to induce them to take the step which they had now adopted. Of this his lordship was certain, that in government there was no disposition to shun the discussion of the subject before, or to be deprived of the assistance of a full attendance, but the hon. gentleman himself would recollect that on Friday, the day after the Call was discharged, he (lord Castlereagh) stated to the House that he should be authorized to make a communication to it on this subject. His lordship concluded by proposing, “That an humble Address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, to return his Royal Highness the Thanks of this House for his most gracious Message, and to assure his Royal Highness that this House will immediately take into their most serious consideration the subject recommended to them in his Royal Highness's Message, and will adopt such steps as may appear to them best calculated to afford security to the lives and properties of his Majesty's peaceable and loyal subjects in the disturbed districts, and for the restoration of order and tranquillity.”

Mr Whitbread said, that he did not rise to oppose the motion. He professed his ardent wish that the noble lord would, as he asserted, be able satisfactorily to shew why he suffered the Call to be discharged before he made any communication to the House: as affairs now stood such conduct appeared to require a very ample apology to the peaceable inhabitants of this country. He sincerely hope that after the Secret Committee should have been appointed to report upon the papers sealed and delivered at the bar this day, it would be found at no extraordinary measures were necessary, and as the noble lord had deprecated discussion, so he (Mr. W.) deprecated any ill-advised attempt to do good from which so much injury might ensue. Examples from our own and from the history of other countries were not wanting to shew with what extreme caution we should proceed, and, profiting by dear-bought experience, he trusted that the subject would be discussed without passion, and decided without precipitation. After the whole matter should have been investigated, he could not avoid indulging a sanguine hope that it would be found that the law of the country, as it now stands, properly executed, and that the power of the crown, as it now stands, properly exercised, were quite adequate to the restoration of tranquillity.

Mr Wilberforce entirely participated in the hope, that nothing would be found in the documents laid upon the table to call for any extraordinary measures. He would not allow himself even to express an opinion, lest it might give rise to feelings that ought to be banished from all minds, that might produce dissent instead of union, for the accomplishment of an object of the greatest magnitude. Not being at all acquainted with the nature the papers supplied, and not having been present on Saturday when the message was brought down, he was, perhaps, of all men the least competent offer any thing to the house, but he could not avoid rising to express a wish, that the utmost calmness and moderation might be observed in the deliberation. Nearly connected as he was with a district of the country most disturbed, he felt it necessary to conjure the House, that the case of these unfortunate and misguided people might be fully and candidly weighed, that the result might be the restoration of order, unanimity, prosperity, and happiness.

The question was then put, and the resolution was agreed to, nem. con.

Lord Castlereagh then moved, that the papers he had presented, should be referred to a committee, that it be a committee of secrecy, and that the number of members be 21; which were severally ordered. His lordship likewise moved, that the members be chosen by ballot.

Mr Whitbread protested against this mode of proceeding, since it would give the noble lord the appointment of every member of the committee. He wished that the members of it should be publicly named and chosen, that the House, and not the noble lord, might have the formation of the committee.

Lord Castlereagh persisted in his motion, since he was certain that on no side of the House on such a question would party feelings be exercised; he was convinced that it would be treated by parliament in a manner, which while it did it honour, would give satisfaction to the people.

Sir F. Burdett, looking at the precedents to which the hon. gentleman had referred, could not help feeling great jealousy as to the conduct of government; he hoped that the bounds of the constitution would not a-new be transgressed by them. The mode in which the committee was formed, if the satisfaction of the people were looked to, was of the utmost importance. It ought to be of such a description that the country would place reliance on upon its wisdom and impartiality, and not to be merely composed of the creatures of ministerial nomination.

The question that the committee be chosen by ballot was then put and carried, though there were a number of dissentient voices.

On the question that members prepare lists, and appear to-morrow to put them into the classes appointed for their reception,

Mr Whitbread declared that he should not attend for that purpose, as experience had shewn that it would be useless, since any list he might prepare would be smothered in the vast heap of names supplied by the noble lord and his political friends.

It was ordered that the papers communicated by the Prince Regent should remain sealed until the apartment of the committee.

This is from Parliamentary Debates, vol.23 (pp.800-806)

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