Friday, 29 June 2012

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

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

Viscount Sidmouth, in rising to move an Address to his Royal Highness, trusted there would be an unanimous concurrence on the part of the lordships in expressing their gratitude for the communication, and in declaring their determination to take into consideration the documents presented to them, and to adopt such measures as the information communicated might appear to require for the safety and security of his Majesty's loyal and peaceable subjects, and the restoration of tranquillity. He should afterwards propose to refer the papers to the committee of secrecy, and it was not for him at the present moment to anticipate what measures might by that committee be deemed necessary. It was with great pain that his Majesty servants had found themselves compelled to resort to this step, but the necessity that existed, rendered it a duty imperative upon them, to advise his royal highness the Prince Regent to make the present communication to parliament. It could not of course be expected that he should now enter into any detail of those circumstances which had rendered necessary this communication. It was, however, matter of notoriety that acts of the greatest violence and outrage had been committed in some districts of the country; and although the conduct of the rioters might be, in some degree, traced to the high price of provisions and the reduction of work, still there was no doubt that these outrages were fomented by persons who had views and objects in thus fomenting disturbances, which it was the duty of government to counteract. The repeal of the Orders in Council might tend, by increasing employment, to withdraw many from this system of riot and outrage, but government would have incurred a heavy responsibility, if, with the knowledge of the documents now communicated to the House, and aware that the hopes of increased employment might be disappointed, or that it might please Providence to inflict the calamity of another deficient harvest, they are not advised is royal highness the Prince Regent to make this communication to parliament. Every measure had been adopted on the part of the government: the military had been called in to assist the civil power, and had conducted themselves with the utmost zeal and moderation; special commissions had been issued for the trial of several persons for acts of riot and outrage, some of whom had paid the forfeit of their lives; others had since been taken into custody, and been ordered for trial. But under the circumstances of the present state of the disturbed districts, is Majesty’s servants had considered this a communication absolutely necessary, in order that measures might be adopted to the security of the lives, and the safety of the property of his Majesty's peaceable and loyal subjects. It would of course rest with the committee to whom the documents were to be referred, to consider what measures were necessary: he did not, however, mean to say, that his Majesty's government had not formed an opinion as to what measures would be requisite. His lordship concluded by moving an Address to the Prince Regent, returning thanks to his Royal Highness for the communication, stating that the House would take into their serious consideration the documents referred to, and expressing their determination to concur in such measures, as, from the information communicated, might appear to be necessary, with a view to the security of the lives and property of his Majesty's peaceable and loyal subjects.

Earl Stanhope observed, that there was not a word in the proposed Address which was not very proper; but at the same time it was much to be wished, that some farther explanation of what was intended should be given; for as to the adoption of proper measures, this might mean anything or nothing: it was no explanation at all. He could not help also observing, that the noble viscount himself, by his Bill of last year, had been a great cause of discontent and disturbance; and he might thank the prudence of opposition, and of ministers—of bishops and layman—that he had not been the cause of much more disturbance. He regretted any such step as this should be necessary to restore tranquillity; but had they tried every other proper measure? Let them look at the situation of the peasantry of Ireland; of the poor of Wales; and of the non-conformists, who formed the greater part of the population of the empire. Let them endeavour to preserve tranquillity, by conciliating the people, and leaving no just cause of complaint. This would be the course of a wise government. But still these unlawful riots must be suppressed, and he had no objection to the words of the Address. He thought it right, however, to propose to add the following words,—“not violating the principles of the constitution.” This addition was necessary, considering the vague and ambiguous state in which the noble viscount had left the question.

The Earl of Liverpool did not think that their lordships would pledge themselves to do any thing tending to violate the principles of the constitution, by agreeing to the Address without the words proposed. The noble earl called for further explanation; but what farther explanation could his noble friend have given under the circumstances of the case? His noble friend had stated, that there were serious disturbances in the country, which the measures hitherto adopted had not been sufficient to suppress; and he had laid on the table a sealed bag, containing the proof of what he stated. Under such circumstances the motion to refer the information to a Secret Committee, without anticipating what might be the proper measures to be adopted in consequence, was conformable to the ordinary practice of parliament on such occasions. It would have been in the highest degree indecorous to hint at the steps which ought to be taken, before the examination of the papers. The proper measures would be the result of the investigation, founded on the information given to the committee. The ministers ought not to commit themselves to any particular measures at present. All they could regularly say at present was, that, in their opinion, some farther measures were necessary. What we should be remained for future consideration. When the noble earl talked of violating the constitution, he probably meant more than met the ear. If the noble earl meant, that it was a violation of the principles of the constitution to depart, on extraordinary occasions, from the ordinary practice of the law, he completely differed from him on that point. Parliament had the power to adopt extraordinary measures to meet extraordinary cases; and when such cases occurred, it was perfect constitutional to exercise that power. If parliament had not exercised that power on particularly emergencies, their liberties would not now have existed to such an extent as they did. This, however, was not the time for such discussions. The subject would come more regularly under consideration when the committee had made its report.

Lord Holland concurred with the noble viscount who proposed the Address, in the opinion, that it would be improper in the present stage of the proceedings, to anticipate what measures it might be proper to adopt. He also agreed with the noble earl who spoke last, that it would be much more decorous to defer discussion till the committee had made its report. But, at the same time, he saw no objection to the words proposed to be introduced in the Address by his noble friend; on the contrary, he thought, that something like this edition was requisite. They talked of not trusting to speculation, but recommended the adoption of such measures as would be calculated to meet the worst that could happen. All this was very properly urged; but, at the same time, he was an old enough member of parliament to know, that sealed green bags and secret committees threatened the generating of such monsters as the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and similar abominations. The suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act he should always oppose; and under all the circumstances in the present case, he thought it was candid and right to express at the outset, an anxiety to preserve the principles of the constitution inviolate.

Earl Stanhope agreed with his excellent and constitutional friend so far, that in no case would he consent to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act; but more especially he would not consent to place such a power as this would furnish, in the hands of such a minister as the noble earl opposite, (Liverpool,) a Minister who had no fixed principle at all, and was more versatile than a weather-cock, turning about with every change of wind. That minister had declared, that he would adhere to the Orders in Council, and had soon after relinquished them. He declared, that he would oppose his (lord Stanhope’s) Gold Coin Bill. At five o'clock he intended to vote against it; at six o'clock he was resolved to oppose it; at seven o'clock he was still hostile to it; but in five minutes after, he suddenly held a cabinet council, and became one of its warmest supporters. Was it to such a weathercock of a prime minister that such powers should be entrusted? He had great hopes, from the opposition of the noble earl, that he would ultimately support him.

The Lord Chancellor then put the question on earl Stanhope's amendment, which was negatived; earl Stanhope declaring, that he would not divide the House upon it, as the subject would come again under consideration.

The Address was then agreed to without farther opposition.

Viscount Sidmouth next proposed that a Secret Committee should be appointed, to consider the information adverted to in the Prince Regent’s Message; that the Committee should consist of eleven lords, to be chosen by ballot; and that the House should proceed to such ballot at four o'clock to-morrow.—This was agreed to.

This is from Parliamentary Debates, vol.23 (pp.796-800)

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