Page images
PDF
EPUB

things he wanted altered. He asked for the real grievances of Ireland to be redressed, and then he would go any lengths the ministers might require.

Mr. O'Connell concluded by moving, as an Amendment, for a Committee of the whole House to consider His Majesty's Speech.

SIR ROBERT PEEL PEEL was, perhaps, more essentially and exclusively a Parliamentary speaker than any other British statesman. The four volumes of his published speeches contain no speech delivered elsewhere than in the House of Commons. Disraeli called him, not altogether as a compliment, the greatest member of Parliament that ever lived. His method may strike a critical reader as ponderous. But his two main objects were to explain and to persuade. Of rhetorical effect he was quite careless. He aimed at answering arguments, at marshalling evidence, at clearing up obscurities, and at making his points clear to ordinary minds. He differed from Cobden in addressing himself more particularly to the Parliamentary situation, and to the kind of reasoning which it demanded. He was in fact a versatile debater, and a singularly adroit tactician, while at the same time his motives were always sincere, and his intellectual honesty conspicuous. He was a Conservative in the sense that he started with a strong predisposition against change, and yet he never closed his intelligence against the admission of reasons or the reception of knowledge. It was so with the resumption of cash payments after the war. was so with the emancipation of the Catholics. It was so with the removal of the Corn Laws. Peel never attempted to lead the way. He was no pioneer.

no pioneer. His view of Conservatism was that it should study to ascertain the precise moment at which reforms might safely be adopted. He was not for making changes by instalments, but for waiting until thorough acquaintance with them, and with the safeguards they required, made it safe to adopt them entirely. Of all public men he was the least timid. Even the Duke of Wellington gave up resistance to proposals he distrusted and disliked when he thought that further opposition would produce serious disturbance.

It

The illustrious soldier could afford to say that he shrank from the alternative of anarchy or civil war. Peel, though a man of acute sensibility, braved any amount of obloquy, any risk of misunderstanding and detraction, when once he was convinced that a case had been made out for a new policy. He did not seek to justify himself upon the principle that the King's Government must be carried on. He knew very well that it always would be, whether he remained in office or not. He seemed rather to ask himself the question what could be the use of Parliament if debate was never to produce conviction. In 1831 Reform came suddenly, and he opposed it stoutly, though he recognised to the full all its consequences when it had been carried. Catholic Emancipation and Free Trade came very gradually. They were argued for years by men of the highest ability and competence before they were accepted by the Legislature. Peel exhausted the objections to them in controversy and debate before he slowly and reluctantly admitted that the reasons in their favour were still stronger than those against them. If he sacrificed his party to his country, he sacrificed also himself.

Peel was the creator of the Conservative party. His idea may be said to have been that the middle class, represented by the House of Commons after 1832, could be used as a barrier against revolution, quite independently of the House of Lords. The Whigs, he thought, would be at the mercy of British Radicals and Irish Repealers. If the old Tories were transformed by judicious management into moderate and reasonable Conservatives, they might establish a predominance in politics which would be stronger and less assailable than when they depended upon aristocratic support. Before the catastrophe of 1846 much progress was made towards the fulfilment of this scheme, though it was interrupted by William the Fourth's dismissal of Lord Melbourne in 1834. Peel showed on that occasion as the leader of a minority in office, remarkable energy, courage, and skill. Even after the General Election

he continued to struggle against a majority which had undergone considerable diminution. He had, however, been forced into a position which he would not voluntarily have taken up, and which was at variance with his theory of adaptation to a reformed House of Commons. Had Lord Melbourne's Government been left to fight their own battles in Parliament, Peel might have anticipated by some years the victory of 1841. There never was by nature a more constitutional Minister. If he was driven into courses which apparently tended to exalt the prerogative and depress the representative principle, the circumstances in which he found himself are more accountable than he.

Resignation of Ministers

House of Commons, June 29th, 1846 MR. SPEAKER, I feel it to be my duty to avail myself of the earliest opportunity of notifying to this House that in consequence of the position of her Majesty's Government, and especially in consequence of the vote to which the House came on the night of Thursday last, refusing to give to her Majesty's servants those powers which they deem necessary for the repression of outrage and the protection of life in Ireland, they have felt it to be their duty to tender their resignation to a gracious Sovereign. The resolution to tender that resignation was unanimously agreed to by her Majesty's servants, and adopted without hesitation. If I had any complaint to prefer with respect to the course pursued by the House, this is not the occasion on which I should make it. It is impossible not to feel that the occasion of a complete change in the councils of a vast empire, affecting, for weal or for woe, many millions of the Queen's subjects in nearly all parts of the habitable globe, is an important, I need almost say, a solemn occasion. It is not upon such an occasion that one word ought to be uttered by a minister of the Crown, acting in homage to constitutional principles, that can by possibility provoke party controversy. Such a controversy would be wholly unsuited to the magnitude of the occasion ; and, I must add, that to provoke any such controversy would be entirely at variance

with the personal feelings which influence me in addressing the House. Those feelings would rather prompt me to acknowledge with gratitude the many occasions on which, speaking of the great body of the gentlemen who sit on this side of the House, they have given to my colleagues and myself, at a period antecedent to the present session, their generous and cordial support. They would prompt me also to acknowledge with gratitude the disinterested aid which we have not unfrequently received from gentlemen opposite, in oblivion of party differences. I trust, therefore, that nothing will escape from me in explaining the course her Majesty's Government have thought it their duty to pursue, that can run the risk of provoking the controversy which I deprecate.

Her Majesty, Sir, has been graciously pleased to accept our tender of resignation and her servants now only hold their offices until their successors shall have been appointed. I said, Sir, that if I had any complaints to prefer, this is not the occasion on which I would prefer them. But I have no complaints to make. I did not propose the measures connected with the commercial policy of the empire, which have been so severely contested, without foreseeing the great probability that, whether those measures should succeed or fail, they must cause the dissolution of the Government which introduced them. And, therefore, I rather rejoice that her Majesty's ministers have been relieved from all difficulty, by an early and unambiguous decision of the House of Commons; for I do not hesitate to say, that even if that decision had been in our favour on the particular vote, I would not have consented to hold office upon sufferance, or through the mere evasion of parliamentary difficulties. It is not for the public interest that a government should remain in office when it is unable to give practical effect to the measures it believes necessary for the national welfare ; and I certainly do not think it probable in the position in which her Majesty's Government were placed by the withdrawal—perhaps the natural withdrawalof the confidence of many of those who heretofore had given it support, that even if the late vote had been in our favour, ministers would have been able, with credit to themselves, and with advantage to the interests of the country, to conduct the administration of public affairs.

We have advised her Majesty to accept our resignation at

« PreviousContinue »