QUEEN'S SPEECH to be considered To-morrow. 20 November 1867

By Seymour Mclean
Listen to article

HC Deb 20 November 1867 vol 190 cc93-103 93
§ Report of Address brought up, and read.
§ On Motion, to agree to the Address,
expressed his satisfaction at the course taken by the Government with reference to the Abyssinian captives. All measures of a conciliatory character having been exhausted, it became their duty, for the honour and prestige of the country, to use every other effort to rescue our countrymen from the terrible captivity in which they were detained. Our countrymen were not only imprisoned, but illused; and he felt sure that after the ignominious treatment to which they had been subjected no Englishman would hesitate to contribute his share towards the outlay requisite to enforce the claims not only of justice, but of humanity. This expedition he hoped and believed would be so conducted as to achieve the object with which it was undertaken, and in doing so would add another wreath to the chaplet of glory which the country had earned by the actions of the past.

said, the present occasion afforded an opportunity to hon. Members to make a few remarks of what might be termed a secondary character, without their being taken as hostile to the Government or to the Address. He had no desire to offer any observations on the general policy submitted in the Royal Speech. He had confidence in the great sagacity with which the noble Lord the Foreign Minister treated all subjects which came within his Department, and he might be said to have inaugurated a new era in the office over which he presided. In former years he (Mr. Darby Griffith) had had occasion to criticize and complain of the conduct of Ministers who had filled the office of Foreign Minister; but now he found himself joining with the House at large in praising the measures, and not less the manner, of the noble Lord, who seemed to lay aside entirely that frequent but most injurious feeling, the distinguishing characteristic of former statesmen, a perpetually irritable amour-propre. There could be no doubt that the foreign policy of this country had often been injuriously affected by the idiosyncrasies of particular Ministers; the noble Lord, on the other hand, put personal considerations completely aside, and walked by the clear light of reason and of duty. If anything could reconcile him to the Prerogative claimed for the Crown to declare war without the knowledge or consent of Parliament, it would be the fact that the advising of Her Majesty lay at present in such hands as he had described. But the time had come, he thought, to call attention to the false position in which they stood with reference to this branch of the Royal Prerogative. The theory and practice with regard to that Prerogative were most contradictory. Now Parliament found itself committed, without its opinion or assent being asked, to a war; for, once the honour of the Crown and the spirit of the country were committed to hostilities, it would be impossible to draw back, and millions might be expended before the undertaking could be brought to a successful termination. The Constitutional fiction was that Parliament, by refusing to vote supplies, might prevent the war. But they all knew that Lord Palmerston plunged the country into the Persian war at the end of a Session, before the House of Commons knew anything about it. The debate of the 20th of July might have had a conclusive effect on the mind of Her Majesty's Government; but when the noble Lord on that occasion gave a resumé of what had occurred with regard to Abyssinia, he (Mr. Darby Griffith) was under the impression that the noble Lord was combating the arguments on the other side, and had no idea he was giving them an intimation of what the result would be in the shape of any practical proceedings. Had it been known then that an expedition was contemplated much more interest would certainly have been taken in the debate; as it was, only one Member, he believed, ventured to say anything in deprecation of the warlike views adopted by the few Members who did speak. Hence, in the middle of August, the announcement came by surprise upon the country that active measures were about to be taken. The power of the House of Commons had been rendered greater and more conspicuous by recent changes, and he believed that one inevitable result of the altered situation must be to modify the prerogative of declaring war, if the future House of Commons, the Ministry, and the Crown were to work together harmoniously. The noble Lord certainly had never put forward the Prerogative of the Crown with the same confident assertion as previous Ministers; but the fact remained that, whatever the privilege, it was, in fact, exercised not by the Crown, but by the Minister. This they knew from certain interesting revelations of the present day. The doctrine and practice relative to the Prerogatives of the Crown required considerable modification. On the last occasion when they were called together in the autumn of 1858 the Government did it on their own responsibility, without any reference to the Prerogative of the Crown, and in doing so applied to Parliament for an indemnity; and although that was a financial matter, the principle applied equally to the case of war. In point of fact, especially when the occupant of the Throne belonged to the gentler sex, the Prerogative of the Crown was exercised, not by the Crown itself, but by the Minister or person in whom at the time confidence might be felt by Royalty, and the personal exercise of that function was a mere fiction. The Prerogative of the Crown might be made productive in other respects of abuses injurious to the Commonwealth. He alluded especially to the creation of dignities and rank. In the present day, unlike former times, few opportunities presented themselves in the military or naval profession of acquiring honours legitimately from the Crown. Hence, in the House of Commons there were always a number of candidates for honours, and it would be perceived what an undue and corrupting power that bestowed on any Minister. Within the period during which he had sat in Parliament as much had been done in the way of irregular, and not altogether creditable, creations as at any former period; and at this moment they were given to understand that an hon. Gentleman who had occupied a seat in Parliament for a very short period was about to have a dignity conferred upon him by the Crown because he made a vacancy for one of the leading officials. That he called a very injurious and discreditable exercise of the patronage of the Crown. He did not for a moment mean to say that any Member of the Government would deliberately have recourse to corrupt practices in the government of the country; but self-deception was a common failing, when the interests of a party were concerned, and it was necessary that every Minister should be careful how he exercised the Prerogative of the Crown, which cannot be said to exercise an individual selection. He hoped that for the future they would be able to come to a better consideration of the real principle of the responsibility of the Ministers to the country with regard to war. During the Government of Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell there was a different, but very objectionable, exercise of Royal Prerogative. This consisted in a cession of territory made in a mere despatch written by the Foreign Minister during the autumn to some Governor in the Mediterranean. The Ionian Islands had been distinctly consigned to our care by the Treaties of 1815, and he objected to the mode and principle of that surrender, made without the knowledge or consent of Parliament by a mere stroke of the pen of an impulsive Minister, as highly injurious and improper. If the country to whom they were ceded had been capable of self-government there might have been some excuse for it; but it was quite notorious that the condition of the islands had retrograded considerably since they were transferred from England to Greece. It had seldom been his good fortune to be in accord with our Foreign Minister, and therefore it afforded him much pleasure in being able to concur in the general policy pursued by the noble Lord, and it was with great hesitation he ventured to express an opinion from which the noble Lord might differ; but, as regarded the Prerogative itself, he felt persuaded that the time must come when it would be less and less insisted upon, and would eventually assume some different shape.

agreed generally with the observations of the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Darby Griffith) with reference to the Prerogatives of the Crown. They were called upon from the terms of the Royal Speech to examine closely the explanation which was there given for the exercise of the Prerogative of the Crown in declaring war against Abyssinia; but the expedition was referred to in the Royal Speech in the most vague and unsatisfactory manner, and something more was required to satisfy the public mind. It stated that we have "no alternative but that of making a peremptory demand for the liberation of my subjects and of supporting it by an adequate force," and the only positive statement that was made was the assurance that the expedition was undertaken to effect the liberation of the captives and for that purpose alone. Nothing was more Quixotic than that we should send out such a force as we proposed to support a demand when that demand might have been made in the usual and ordinary manner. He therefore complained that a more specific statement had not been set forth in the Royal Speech, consistent with our interests and honour. If King Theodore was the man they were led to suppose he could easily put these unhappy captives to death, or have them carried away in the presence of all the armies of Europe. They might talk of honour and prestige, but they were mere words that signified nothing unless there was some substantial grievance at the bottom. Honour and prestige might be considered something in India, where the application of those words as now applied first rose; but they did not apply to King Theodore, who was not likely to declare war upon or invade us. It appeared to him that we ought to take possession of Massowah, or some portion of the Abyssinian territory; and, having placed our Consul there, make such military arrangements as would effectually protect him in the discharge of his functions. That was the way we had acted in India and in China. He did not think that the statements made in Her Majesty's Speech upon this subject were satisfactory. In the first place, to say that the Government had sent an army to Abyssinia for the purpose of liberating the British prisoners there was ridiculous. In the second place, it was inconsistent to confine the statement to that object alone, because it would appear that by doing so Her Majesty's Government were excluding themselves from the occupation of any of the Abyssinian territory under all circumstances.

said, he was surprised, and he deeply regretted, to see no notice nor reference made in Her Majesty's Speech to the condition of Ireland, or to the necessity for some remedial measures in respect of that country. He would, however, accept the assurance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when replying to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire last evening, that it must not be supposed because no reference had been made to such subjects in the Queen's Speech that the Government were therefore precluded from considering such measures during the Session next year. He relied upon that observation of the right hon. Gentleman that Her Majesty's Government would be induced to address themselves practically to the state of Ireland, with a view to beneficial legislation for that country. There was one matter now to which he wished to make a slight reference—he should not have alluded to it if it had not been made the subject of a distinct paragraph in Her Majesty's Speech—he meant that paragraph relating to the case of the unhappy men who were now lying under sentence of death in Manchester Gaol, and against whom there was an impression abroad that the extreme penalty of the law would be carried out. The subject was one of the most serious and of the gravest character, and he was fully alive to the responsibility he incurred in dealing with it. He thought it his duty to mention that that very morning he had seen a requisition to the Mayor of Cork, signed by forty or fifty of the leading men of that city, including magistrates and other gentlemen of high position, well known for their loyalty and respectability, calling upon that functionary to convene a public meeting for the purpose of having recorded the expression of their opinions that the sentence of death should not be carried out. As to the nature of the offence upon which the prisoners had been found guilty be should not offer any opinion, under the peculiar circumstances of the case. He would only simply say that even among the classes least likely to sympathize with Fenianism there was a strong feeling entertained largely and widely in Ireland, and he believed by a considerable portion of the people of England, that in the case of these men the extreme penalty of the law should not be inflicted. From his own knowledge he could state that that feeling was also entertained by Members of the House of Commons. The main reason for this feeling was that the evidence had broken down upon which they had been convicted. The facts were simply these:—Five men had been arraigned for the same offence, had been tried together, and had all been found guilty, and sentence of death had been solemnly passed against them. In a few days afterwards the Government saw fit to advise that the Prerogative of the Crown should be exercised in favour of one of these men to the extent of granting him a free and unconditional pardon, on the ground that the evidence had broken down—the same evidence precisely as that upon which the other four had been convicted. Under the circumstances, he should simply say that the prevailing sentiment of the country must be against the rigorous exercise of the power of the Crown against the four unhappy men, inasmuch as the evidence so impeached as against one of the convicted was equally applicable to the whole five of them, and broke down the public confidence in the general testimony by which they had been all found guilty. He ventured to submit that the Crown should not be actuated in their conduct by a feeling of irritation, arising from the indiscretion of persons in London, nor ought they attempt to support their dignity by an act of cruelty for the mere purpose of maintaining a character for firmness. The House would pardon him if he dealt with another subject referred to in the Royal Speech—namely, the temporal power of the Pope. His excuse for doing so was that he was a Catholic. He, for one, held that Her Majesty's Government had arrived at a correct decision in resolving not to meddle with that most intricate, complicated, and dangerous subject. He (Mr. Maguire) thought the question at issue was one which ought rather to be dealt with by the Catholic Powers exclusively. He feared that if the Government went into a Conference with the feelings displayed in this country during the last month or six weeks, their action would be hostile not only to the temporal power but to Catholicity itself. He did not blame this country for attempting to strike a blow at Catholicity; but he would tell them that it was beyond the ability of any country or any number of nations to destroy Catholicity. Even if they succeeded in driving the Pope from the Vatican, Catholicity would continue to increase and multiply. Throughout the great Republic of America, which he had recently visited, it was ramifying and acquiring greater strength and power in the hearts of the people; and every day greater numbers were giving their spiritual allegiance to the Holy Father. He must remark that the English Government—not the present Government—were answerable for much of the trouble by which the Sovereign Pontiff had been afflicted. In 1847 and 1848 they sent emissaries to Italy who had done much to bring about future complications. But who had come to the aid of the Pope? The child of the Revolution. France had come to terminate the short and unholy rule of the Triumvirate. Formerly the cry in this country was—"Why does not the Pope have an army of his own?" Well, he did get an army; and then the cry was changed to—"What does the head of the Church want with an army?" Was not the Queen the head of the Established Church of this country, and had Her Majesty not an army? It was impossible, circumscribed as his territories had been, that he could maintain an effective army of his own; but then the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Stroud (Mr. Horsman) had stigmatised the soldiers of the Pope as mercenaries. Did England disdain to employ mercenaries? Had we none in the Crimea? Were there no sad recollections in Ireland of the diabolical acts of our mercenaries during the Rebellion of 1798? Though many of the troops who served under the Papal standard were men of high birth, those soldiers, as a rule, could not afford to serve without pay; but the fact that they received pay made them no more mercenaries than were the soldiers who served in the army of the Queen. Among the troops of the Pope were to be found men of various nationalities; but they thought it an honour to serve the Pope, who was the spiritual chief of all Catholics, no matter of what country. It was admitted by every newspaper, from The Times downwards, that in the recent insurrection Garibaldi and his companions got no assistance from the Pope's own subjects, even though the former might have succeeded in levying money from some cowed municipalities. What was the extent of the Pope's dominions? The population was only 600,000, of whom nearly one-half were in Rome itself. Had the 250,000 inhabitants of Rome risen, or had they given any encouragement to the insurgents? No. On what ground should Rome be handed over to Italy? What had Italy done for Rome? Had the party who were now trying to obtain possession of that city contributed to invest it with those attractions for the antiquary, the lover of art, and the Christian, which brought to it visitors from all parts of the world? Nothing had been said in that House by way of condemnation of the fiendish act of mining with gunpowder a barrack occupied by Zouaves, and blowing into eternity a number of unarmed men. That had been done by the Italian revolutionists. It was now admitted that every Italian statesman who had been in office since the Convention between France and Italy had done everything to excite the party of action. There was no statesman who would not have condemned the Emperor of the French if he had not sent troops to Rome when that Convention had been so frequently violated. The Act of Union with Ireland, though carried by very questionable means, was nevertheless regarded by this country with such respect that it would not allow a word to be uttered against it. Why should not the Convention of September between France and Italy be viewed with the same respect? What did Italy want with Rome, which for a part of the year was a very unhealthy city, while Florence, the present capital of Italy, was one of the healthiest and most beautiful cities in Europe? But supposing the Pope were driven from Rome, what could be done with him? It was impossible to do anything else with him than to place him again in Rome. Whatever might be said of France, he believed that the heart of the people of France was Catholic, and determined that the solemn compacts entered into by that Power should not be violated by treason or fraud of the other parties to them.

Sir, I have already stated what the position of the Government is in regard to this question of the temporal power of the Pope; and therefore I do not think it will be necessary for me now to comment upon the speech of the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. I only wish it to be understood that if I pass over that speech in silence, I do not thereby imply entire assent to the doctrines the hon. Member has laid down. Indeed, I think, in some respects, he answered his own argument, for he spoke of the increased and increasing power of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Well, I apprehend that there is no one in Italy—not even among those who are most adverse to the temporal power of the Pope—who would not be quite content if the Catholic Church occupied in Italy the position that it occupies in the United States. Then, again, the hon. Gentleman laid great stress upon the content of the people of Rome with their present Government; but I did not hear him say that he, or those in whose interest he speaks, would be satisfied to refer the question, whether the temporal power should continue, to the decision of that population. I agree, however, with the hon. Member in thinking that this is a question upon which we are not called to take a leading or active part. Referring to the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Darby Griffith), I am much obliged to him for the courtesy with which he has commented upon the foreign policy of the present Government. But considering the state of the House—considering that the Papers upon the subject of Abyssinia were only laid on the table last night, and that upon an early day next week the whole of that question must be gone into, I think I had better reserve until then the explanation of the course the Government have pursued. I will only remind the House now that when it was my duty to speak on that subject in July last, I left the Government entirely free and unfettered as to the course we should pursue—we did not pledge ourselves certainly to an expedition, neither did we pledge ourselves against one. I may also observe that a period of three or four weeks elapsed between the delivery of that speech and the time when the Government announced their intention to send an expedition to Abyssinia. I shall be quite prepared, when the subject is formally before the House, to explain what occurred in that interval to induce the Government to arrive at the decision to which they came. I can assure the House that if the circumstances and the time of year had rendered it possible, we should undoubtedly have felt it a great relief and a great advantage to have obtained the preliminary sanction of Parliament to the steps we were about to take. The objections which my hon. Friend raised to the Prerogative of the Crown are, in fact, not objections to the conduct of this or any other Ministry, but to the form of the Government under which we live. All, therefore, I can say upon that is, we did not make the Constitution. We have simply accepted it, and acted upon it, within the limits which it prescribes. With regard to the speech of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley), I shall only point out that he began by objecting very strongly to our sending any expedition with a view of rescuing those unfortunate persons, and concluded by suggesting that we might take a course which would be infinitely more embarrassing in the future, and might lead to infinitely more serious consequences than that which was proposed. The hon. Member suggested that we should annex a portion of Abyssinia. I shall state, on the proper occasion, what the Government are prepared to do; but this I will now say, that we shall not take the course suggested by the hon. Member.

explained that he only urged that we should occupy a portion of territory sufficient to enable our Consul in Abyssinia to maintain an independent position.

§ Address agreed to; to be presented by Privy Councillors.

§ QUEEN'S SPEECH to be considered To-morrow.