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Ceylon—Threatened Vote Of Censure On Ministers

Volume 115: debated on Monday 17 March 1851

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said: Mr. Speaker, I will take this opportunity of asking the hon. Gentleman the Member for Inverness-shire whether he has made any arrange- ments with the other hon. Members who have precedence of him upon the Order of the Day, for bringing forward the Motion of censure upon Lord Torrington and Her Majesty's Government, of which he has given notice for the 25th instant?

Sir, I have in the first place to express to the noble Lord my regret that I was absent from the House on Friday last, when he wished to put a question to me; and in answering the question he has now put to me, I must take the liberty of observing that the course which the noble Lord has thought proper to adopt is one of which, I think, I have great reason to complain. The noble Lord has stated that the Motion of which I have given notice is a censure upon Her Majesty's Government, and that therefore it is not his intention to bring forward the great financial measures of the Government until that question is disposed of; thus placing me in the invidious position, not only of obstructing the public business of the country, but of placing the Motion itself not upon its real merits, but in the position of a question of confidence or no confidence in the Government, and that at a time when the noble Lord is perfectly well aware that there is no other party in the country prepared to take office. Now, I beg to remind the noble Lord that this is a question of long standing. The noble Lord has shown much virtuous indignation within a few days; but he must be perfectly well aware, as I am, that he has been looking forward to this Motion for the last three years. I myself gave formal notice of it in the last Session of Parliament, and it is only in consequence of the extraordinary course pursued by Government, in refusing to allow the evidence to be produced, that it has been delayed so long. I think, therefore, that under these circumstances the House will be disposed to admit that I am not liable to the charge of factious motives, or of having brought forward a Motion to impede the great and necessary public business of the country. Now, Sir, I can perfectly understood the difficulties of the noble Lord's position. I can perfectly well understand that the noble Lord is anxious to escape from those difficulties, and that, perhaps anticipating defeat on this Motion, he does not wish to have the trouble of preparing and bringing forward those measures which it is his duty, as the Minister of the Crown, to bring forward in this House. But the noble Lord is mistaken if he thinks that I shall allow myself to be made an instrument of enabling him to escape from those duties which the position that he has assumed, and the great public exigencies of the country, imperatively call upon him to perform. Under these circumstances the course which I shall pursue is perfectly clear. For the present I shall remove this notice from the books, reserving to myself the undoubted right to bring it forward again whenever I may think proper so to do; that is to say, whenever the public business of the country, or of this House, is in such a state that I may be enabled to do so, without rendering myself obnoxious to the charge of impeding the great financial measures of the country. The noble Lord stated the other day that he wished to ask me a question with respect to the terms of my resolution. Does he wish to put that question now?

Sir, the hon. Gentleman has mistaken the grounds upon which I stated the view I took of the Motion which he has given notice of his intention to bring forward. The hon. Gentleman has attended for about three years to the affairs of Ceylon. He stated at the commencement of these proceedings, in moving for the Ceylon Committee, that he wished to censure the conduct of the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the local Government. He has continued in these opinions, and he wishes to bring forward a resolution in conformity with those opinions. To that course I have no objection—I cannot object to any hon. Member taking that course which he thinks proper; but that to which I object, and to which I have a right to object, is, that any hon. Member, after making a charge involving an accusation of wanton cruelty against a late Governor of one of Her Majesty's possessions, and of full, complete, and unqualified approbation by the Colonial Secretary of State of those proceedings of wanton cruelty, should not immediately bring that question before the House. This I can venture to say, that not only among numerous precedents of accusation, but of Motions of censure brought before the House, there never has been an instance of an hon. Member giving notice of that which was clearly and distinctly a vote of censure against a great department of the Government, with a Secretary of State at the head, and refraining from bringing that question to an immediate issue. It was in reference to that point that I put my question to the hon. Gentleman. I did not complain of him, because I naturally supposed that he was anxious to bring on the Motion upon the day named by himself. The hon. Gentleman framed his own Motion, and named his own day, and I had no reason to suppose that he would not bring it forward on the day so named. What I said, and what I was justified in saying, was, that the Government, with such an accusation hanging over their heads—with a Motion of censure in abeyance upon which no opinion had been pronounced—could not begin any great measure not already introduced, and must pause until this House gave an affirmative or negative to that Motion. What I am about to state I am exceedingly sorry to say, because it may comprehend not only the hon. Gentleman, with respect to whose opinions I have nothing to say, but may regard others who intend to give support to the hon. Gentleman's Motion. With respect to late transactions it was said, and justly said, of all the parties in this country who might be expected to desire to assume the administration of affairs, that their conduct was perfectly fair and honourable to each other, and that, engaged as they had been in political conflicts, no feeling of personal dissatisfaction, still less of personal animosity, was exhibited. I rejoice that an opinion was thereby spread among the public of the honourable conduct of parties, and that such was the feeling of those engaged in those transactions; but I must say, if it is to be the conduct of a great party to say that they have a charge of wanton cruelty against a noble Lord, a Peer of the realm, and late governor of a colony, and a charge against the Secretary of State of the Colonies approving of that wanton cruelty, and at the same time to hang up the charge indefinitely, never to state when they will bring the question before the House, and put it to issue, I must say that the opinion with respect to the fair and honourable conduct of public parties, at least as regards the supporters of such a Motion, must be greatly changed.

I believe, Sir, there is no question before the House, but perhaps I may be allowed to say that I wish to remind the noble Lord at the head of the Government, that at this moment important documents which were submitted to the Ceylon Committee, are not in possession of hon. Members. A very large volume, containing the evidence received by that Committee, has been only recently delivered, and I am sure it has not yet been perused with sufficient attention. An important mass of public documents, of the greatest interest and importance, probably amounting in quantity to not less then the folio containing the evidence of the Ceylon Committee—absolutely necessary before any Member can form an opinion—is not yet delivered to Members; and this important volume of these documents will not, I am informed, be ready for a fortnight. Under these circumstances alone the noble Lord could not have been surprised that the hon. Member for Inverness-shire should not have brought forward his Motion, as, had he brought it on, he would have submitted it under disadvantages to which, I think, the House ought not to be subjected. Remember, this is a great judicial inquiry, and the hon. Member for Inverness-shire ought not to ask for the verdict of the House after the protracted investigations of a Committee on the conduct of the Government upon a day when the House cannot be in possession of the case, absolutely necessary to elucidate and to enable the House to form a complete and just opinion. True it is that the hon. Member for Inverness-shire put his name down for the Motion on the 25th. ["Hear, hear!"] The observation has been received by cheers, for which I waited. But remember this, he is the fifth down on that paper; and to give him a locus standi it is necessary to make those preliminary attempts. ["No, no!"] Then what is the state of the case? The noble Lord wishes us to decide on this question in the absence of the documents. Nor is this all. I have here a paper to which the attention of the House ought to be called. At the recommendation of the Committee on the affairs of Ceylon, a Commission was sent to Ceylon, to inquire into circumstances of very great interest. The report of that Commission has been recently laid before this House, but no copy of the evidence, although a copy of that evidence was sent to this country. When the hon. Member for Inverness-shire inquired of the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies the reason the report was laid on the table, but no copy of the evidence, he was informed that by some unfortunate circumstances that evidence was no sooner received than it had been sent back to Ceylon; and the reason given was, that it was necessary for the court-martial now proceeding in Ceylon as to the conduct of Captain Watson. But in these papers I find a letter to the Secretary of State fop the Colonies, and signed by the two special Commissioners that were sent out, in which they say they have sent an authenticated copy of the evidence, together with the original documents. Therefore, they did not send the evidence, but an authenticated copy of the evidence. Now, mark this; an authenticated copy of the evidence taken by those Commissioners cannot be required by the court-martial, for an authenticated copy of that evidence taken by the Commissioners would not be an official document which could be used at the court-martial. The court-martial is in possession of the actual evidence by proof of this very despatch to the Secretary of State; and therefore the unparalleled circumstance of the evidence being sent over by the officers appointed by a Committee of the House of Commons, and no sooner received than sent back to the colony, and the extraordinary reason given by the Under Secretary of State for this unparalleled circumstance is, to say the least of it, the most unsatisfactory ever presented to the House. Yet, under these remarkable circumstances, Members having only this moment received the evidence of two years' sittings of the Committee, the House not being in possession, or able to be in possession for upwards of a fortnight, of all the documents submitted to the Committee—having just experienced strong and suspicious circumstances with reference to the evidence taken by the Commissioners—under these circumstances the First Minister of the Crown gets up, and in a tone of virtuous indignation appeals to the House against what he calls the unfair conduct of a great party. Sir, if the Minister had been in the position in which he would wish to be, we could not have heard that expression; he would not himself have wished the House of Commons to have arrived at a judicial conclusion upon such an important charge in the absence of the necessary documents, and after such inexplicable conduct in the department whose conduct was impugned. The hon. Member for Inverness-shire has taken that course which good sense and good feeling dictated. I leave to the verdict of the country his conduct en this occasion.

Mr. Speaker, it is impossible the House can help observing the remarkable difference between the arguments of the hon. Member for Inverness- shire, and those of his Friend, his leader, and his protector on this occasion. I was in the House, as well as many hon. Gentlemen now present, when the hon. Member for Inverness-shire, occupying a front place on the Opposition benches, read distinctly in answer to his name when called out by you, Sir, from the chair, the notice which he proposed to place on the table, of a Motion which he distinctly said he should submit to the House on the 25th of this month. That was not an extensive margin which the hon. Gentleman had allowed himself; he might by the rules of the House have taken a more distant day; but slowly and deliberately he rose from his seat and read the terms of the Motion, which has been characterised by my noble Friend, and which he stated was the Motion he would submit to the consideration of the House. Now when my noble Friend asks whether he will proceed on the 25th, he does not say whether he is prepared to substantiate that charge; but he says he will not stand in the way of that important business which he holds it to be the imperative duty of my noble Friend to bring before the country, and he professes a desire not to stand in the way of more important business; whereas the real reason escaped from the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire—it is that the hon. Member for Inverness-shire is not prepared, and that he dares not under present circumstances bring it forward; and he says he will withdraw it from the paper, reserving the right to bring it forward on a future occasion. But what says the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire? He shows great zeal on the part of his Friend, but he has not mended his case. He says when the notice was put on the paper, the hon. Gentleman knew he had not the remotest chance of bringing it on. By giving the notice, he had had an opportunity of circulating the charge throughout the country, though he had neither the probability of bringing it on for discussion, nor the materials for substantiating the charge. I must say that as this is to be, as the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire called it, a grave judicial inquiry, I hope this at least is not a specimen of the spirit in which that inquiry will be commenced and acted upon by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Sir, the hon. Member for Inverness-shire has all along, from the moment at which these transactions were reported, in respect to Lord Torrington, expressed a strong opinion respecting them. He has followed very steadily, and, I think, with great credit to himself, the investigation of the whole of these proceedings. Last Session he was unable to bring the charge before the House; but now, being well prepared, he seriously proposed to bring a charge against Lord Torrington. He gave formal notice of the day on which he proposed to bring forward the Motion, and he gave a statement which the noble Lord at the head of the Administration says, and says truly, contained a charge against one large portion of the Administration, which, if not worthy of the confidence of this House, affects the credit of the whole Administration. I acknowledge the proposition of the noble Lord to be perfectly correct. I am not, however, prepared to say if, under those circumstances, in former times the noble Lord would not have pursued steadily his own course respecting other proceedings, and allowed that to come on in due course. The noble Lord, as we all see, suffers from the present weakness of his position; and because of that weakness the great intersests of this country are to be sacrificed, and the hon. Member for Inverness-shire is allowed to hang over the head of a man, who has long represented this country in one of the colonies thereof, a grave charge which he has solemnly stated to the House he is prepared to make. The day on which he is to make it is stated beforehand; and now, for certain party purposes, the great interests of this country are to be sacrificed, and the character of one who has represented this country is to be hold up to public scorn. The hon. Member for Inverness-shire does not withdraw the charge, but postpones it; and postpones it upon what? Not upon the statement of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, which is an afterthought, a quibble, a mere pretence; but he says fairly and openly to the noble Lord, "I do not think you have behaved well on this occasion, therefore I will withdraw my charge," which is a distinct criminal charge. I apprehend both parties are wrong—the noble Lord for withholding the doing of his duty, and the hon. Member for Inverness-shire for having made a charge against an honourable man, as I believe, and then postponing the charge. But of all parties who are wrong, the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire is the most wrong. Totally unconnected with the whole matter, and moreover bringing forward some charge against the Colonial Office, wholly unconnected, as far as I can see, with the charges concerned, the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire actually fabricates—if I may use the term, without intending to break the rules of the House—he actually makes a reason which the hon. Member for Inverness-shire never thought of. The whole thing is really a party fight. Let the people of this country understand that all the great interests of the country are held in abeyance—colonies, finances, every great part of our administration and legislation, is all now in abeyance—because the Administration will not go on whilst censure is threatened. At the same time, of this I think there can be no doubt, that when a man has charged openly that which is a great crime—when it is gravely charged in this House by an hon. Member thereof in his place, and he has stated that he has evidence in proof of the accusation, common justice—ordinary good faith—plain, honest, good faith, and fair play, require that there should be no shrinking from that charge. Therefore I think it right he should do so. I know very little of the circumstances, except so far as investigating for the purpose of forming an opinion; but whatever may be my opinion as to the result, to the verdict of the jury, I say, the accuser is bound, as an honest man, to come forward and substantiate his charge, and I demand of the hon. Member for Inverness-shire, as he is represented to be the accuser of this man, that he shall make and, if he can, justify the charge. Let no man treat this lightly. Let him not suppose it is only a case of misgovernment. The noble Lord is charged with no less than murder. He is charged with having committed that murder when he represented this country in Ceylon. If there be a great crime, I honour the man who brings a great criminal to justice; but I cannot say I honour the man who skulks from proving the charge which he has made.

I entirely agree with what has fallen from the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield, and that it is utterly impossible that the Government could have taken any other course. On the present occasion it is admitted—and it must be admitted by every impartial person—that the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness-shire was nothing more nor less than a censure on the Government; and with that feeling how could the noble Lord have brought forward the financial affairs of the country? I have no doubt hon. Gentlemen opposite desire that he should do so, that, in case of emergency' they may be relieved from the difficulty-The question at issue is put forward distinctly. Here you bring a deliberate charge of murder, and nothing less, against one of the Governors of one of our colonies, employed by the Government—a Peer of the realm, and we demand of you to go into this inquiry forthwith, according to your own notice. We see no reason for not going on with this Motion, if you thought proper to give the notice. Why do you give the notice, and why do you drop it? Is it for this reason—because at a meeting it has been determined that this question shall not be brought forward at this time? Is the hon. Member for Inverness-shire sincere in his statement, that he does not wish to prevent the noble Lord from bringing forward the great questions of finance, and therefore he withdraws it? Let me ask the hon. Gentleman and those hon. Gentlemen opposite, who are the accused? Two Peers of the realm. Is there no other place where the question can be brought forward—where an answer might be given to the accusation? If it is inconvenient to bring it forward in this House, because the financial affairs will be postponed, why not let some friends agree in this proposition who think that the noble Lords ought to be arraigned? Why not bring it forward in another place—where both Lord Grey and Lord Torrington will be present, and can answer the charge? Because you are following out the course pursued last Session, when no man would come forward in this House and attack my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; and it was left to the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield to bring forward the question here, that my noble Friend might have an opportunity to reply. Why not allow Lord Grey and Lord Torrington to meet their accusers man to man, and to answer the charges that are made? Why not bring those charges in the House of Peers, where those men sit? And, without giving any opinion whether the noble Lord the late Governor of Ceylon has been right or wrong in the admininistration of that colony, the question at issue is, if you wish to deal fairly with those men, whether you ought not to bring forward your charges in their own presence, where they can meet them and give a fair and legitimate account of their conduct? Do not let such a charge hang over them—do not postpone it, because you yourselves may have reasons for not bringing it forward, to which you cannot give utterance in this House.

Subject dropped.