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The Duke of Wellington's speech on the repeal of the Corn Laws: 28 May 1846

Hansard, 3/LXXXVI/1401-5

The Conservatives, under Sir Robert Peel, had won the election of 1841 on a platform of maintaining the Corn Laws. Within months, Peel was making adjustments to the protectionist system in place in Britain and by the end of 1845 had proposed to repeal the Corn Laws. Peel relied heavily on the Duke of Wellington to ensure that the Tory Lords supported the legislation proposed in the House of Commons.

My Lords, I cannot allow this question for the second reading of this Bill to be put to your Lordships, without addressing to you a few words on the vote you are about to give. I am aware, my Lords, that I address you on this occasion under many disadvantages. I address your Lordships under the disadvantage of appearing here, as a Minister of the Crown, to press this measure upon your adoption, knowing at the same time how disagreeable it is to many of you with whom I have constantly acted in political life, with whom I have long lived in intimacy and friendship with the utmost satisfaction to myself - on whose good opinion I have ever relied, and, I am happy to say, whose good opinion it has been my fortune hitherto to have enjoyed in no small degree. My Lords, I have already in this House adverted to the circumstances which gave rise to this measure. My Lords, in the month of December last, I felt myself bound, by my duty to my Sovereign, not to withhold my assistance from the Government - not to decline to resume my seat in Her Majesty's Councils - not to refuse to give my assistance to the Government of my right hon. Friend [Sir Robert Peel] - knowing as I did, at the time, that my right hon. Friend could not do otherwise than propose to Parliament a measure of this description - nay, more, my Lords, this very measure - for this is the very measure which my right hon. Friend stated to the Cabinet prior to their resignation in the month I have referred to. My Lords, it is not necessary that I should say more upon that subject. I am aware that I address your Lordships at present with all your prejudices against me for having adopted the course I then took - a course which, however little I may be able to justify it to your Lordships, I considered myself bound to take, and which, if it was to be again adopted tomorrow, I should take again. I am in Her Majesty's service - bound to Her Majesty and to the Sovereigns of this country by considerations of gratitude of which it is not necessary that I should say more to your Lordships. It may be true, my Lords, and it is true, that in such circumstances I ought to have no relation with party, and that party ought not to rely upon me. Be it so, my Lords - be it so, if you think proper: I have stated to you the motives on which I have acted - I am satisfied with those motives myself - and I should be exceedingly concerned if any dissatisfaction respecting them remained in the mind of any of your Lordships. I am aware that I have never had any claim to the confidence which you have all reposed in me for a considerable number of years. Circumstances have given it to me; in some cases the confidence of the Crown, and, in other, the zeal with which I have endeavoured to serve your Lordships, to promote your Lordships' views, and my desire to facilitate your business in this House; and I shall lament the breaking up of that confidence in public life. But, my Lords, I will not omit, even on this night - probably the last on which I shall ever venture to address to you any advice again - I will not omit to give you my councel with respect to the vote you ought to give on this occasion. My noble Friend [Lord Stanley], whose absence on this occasion I much lament, urged you, and in the strongest manner, to vote against this measure; and he told you, in terms which I cannot attempt to imitate, that it was your duty to step in and protect the people of this country from rash and inconsiderate measures passed by the other House of Parliament, and which, in his opinion, were inconsistent with the views and opinions of the people themselves. My Lords, there is no doubt whatever that it is your duty to consider all the measures which are brought before you, and that it is your right to vote in regard to those measures as you think proper; and, most particularly, it is your duty to vote against those that appear to be rash and inconsiderate; but, my Lords, I beg leave to point out to your Lordships that it is also your duty to consider well the consequences of any vote you give on any subject - to consider well the situation in which you place this House - nay, my Lords, that it is the duty of every one of you to place himself in the situation of this House, to ponder well the consequences of his vote and all the circumstances attending it, and the situation I repeat, in which this House would be placed it it should adopt the vote which he himself is about to give. This, indeed, has been the line of conduct pursued by this House before. I myself once prevailed upon this House to vote for a measure on which it had pronounced positive opinions by former votes [Catholic Emancipation in 1829]; and persuaded it subsequently to take a course different from that which it had pursued on previous occasions, upon the same subject. My Lords, I now ask you to look a little at the measure in respect of which you are going to give your votes this night - to look at the way in which it comes before you, and to consider the consequences likely to follow your rejection - if you do reject it - of this Bill. This measure, my Lords, was recommended by the Speech from the Throne, and it has been passed by a majority of the House of Commons, consisting of more than half the Members of that House. But my noble Friend said that that vote is inconsistent with the original vote given by the same House of Commons on this same question, and inconsistent with the supposed views of the constituents by whom they were elected. But, my Lords, I think that is not a subject which this House can take into its consideration - for, first, we can have no accurate knowledge of the fact; and, secondly, whether it be the fact or not, this we know, that it is the House of Commons from which this Bill comes to us. We know by the Votes that it has been passed by a majority of the House of Commons; we know that it is recommended by the Crown; and we know that, if we should reject this Bill, it is a Bill which has been agreed to by the other two branches of the Legislature; and that the House of Lords stands alone in rejecting this measure. Now that, my Lords, is a situation in which I beg to remind your Lordships, I have frequently stated you ought not to stand; it is a position in which you cannot stand, because you are entirely powerless; without the House of Commons and the Crown, the House of Lords can do nothing. You have vast influence on public opinion; you may have great confidence in your own principles; but without the Crown or the House of Commons you can do nothing - till the connexion with the Crown and the House of Commons is revived, there is an end of the functions of the House of Lords. But I will take your Lordships a step further, and let you see what will be the immediate consequences of rejecting this Bill. It appears very clear, that whatever may be the result of this Bill in this House, the object I had in view in resuming my seat in Her Majesty's Councils will not be attained. I conclude that another Government will be formed; but whether another government is formed or not, let me ask, do your Lordships suppose that you will not have this very same measure brought before you by the next Administration which can be formed? And do your Lordships mean to reject the measure a second time? Do you mean the country to go on in the discussion of this measure two or three months longer? But the object of the noble Duke and of the noble Lords who have addressed the House against this Bill is, that Parliament should be dissolved - that the country should have the opportunity of considering the question, and of returning other representatives; and that it may be seen whether or not the new House of Commons would agree to this measure or not. Now, really if your Lordships have so much confidence, as you appear to have, in the result of other elections, and in the exercise of public opinion on this question, I think that you might venture to rely upon elections which must occur, according to the common course of law, in the course of a twelvemonth from this time; and that you might leave it to the Parliament thus elected to consider the course which it will take on the expiration of the term of the Bill now before you; for that Bill is to last only till the year 1849. I think your Lordships might trust to that Parliament to take the matter into consideration at that time, without interfering with the prerogative of the Crown, by compelling the Queen to dissolve Parliament as the immediate consequence of the rejection of the present measure. Your Lordships, therefore, have now the option of immediately accepting this Bill, reserving it to another parliament to pass or reject it again, if again the question should be brought forward, or of rejecting the Bill now, and obtaining a fresh election, of which you are so desirous: your Lordships have that choice - you may reject the Bill now, or you may appeal again to the new Parliament to confirm or reject it, at the time when its operation will cease, in the year 1849.

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