THE KEEPER OF THE QUEEN'S CONSCIENCE.
THE Committee of the House of Lords have issued their report on the Edmunds case, and it certainly presents a somewhat painful picture of the various moral embarrassments through which the present Keeper of the Royal Conscience has himself recently passed. The strongest impression left upon us by the story is that whatever faculties Lord Westbury does avowedly keep for the service of the Crown—and no doubt they are faculties of rare force and insight—he does not think it fitting or modest to reckon among them any- thing of the nature of an official conscience. He appears to have felt that wherever it might be his rifle as Lord Chancellor to enforce the strict law of offended justice, his true part was to fall back on unimpeachable external advice, and accept it absolutely without even attempting to have an opinion of his own upon the matter, but that wherever it seemed that there was room for leniency or mercy, then he need not ask foreign support, but might trust to the impulses of his own nature. It happens, somewhat unfortunately perhaps, that while the advisers whom he consulted uniformly exercised through him a pressure which menaced Mr. Ed- munds's tenure of his lucrative office as Reading Clerk to the House of Lords, his own merciful impulses so far co-operated with the sterner dictates of those advisers as to open a way of comparatively safe and comfortable repentance to Mr. Edmunds in case he chose to resign the office. Lord Westbury's counsellors necessarily advised him to hold retribution over Mr. Edmunds, and his own mercy always inspired him to point to an easy mode of capitulation and a safe retreat. The Chancellor resigned the avenging rod into the hands of Lord Cranworth, Lord Kingsdown, and the Cabinet, whose shadowy forms were dimly seen by Mr. Edmunds gaining on him from behind, but he charged himself with the congenial duty of keeping before Mr. Edmunds's wild and startled eyes the city of refuge, the "sweet fields beyond the swelling flood" where the fugitive might find safety if he would, and be beyond the danger of further "pursuit." The Committee's report quotes the following as Lord Westbury's own words :—" I beg the Com- mittee for a moment to understand that from the beginning to the end I have acted upon this principle, that I would do nothing against Mr. Edmunds but what public duty required. I asked Lord Cranworth and Lord Kingsdown whether my duty required his discharge, if the alleged facts were true. They said ' Yes ;' then I directed the inquiry to go on. When I found that the House of Lords was the tribunal, I asked the Cabinet, is it my duty to bring it before the House of Lords ?' Not whether I was justified in doing it, but 'is it my bounden duty to do it ?' They said Yes,' but that was only in order that the House of Lords might no longer have that officer, and when that officer retired, I then determined for myself, rightly or wrongly (I take all the responsibility of it), that I would not interfere actively to prevent his having a pension." If Mr. Edmunds had thought not only salary and character, but pension at stake, he might have fought his case hard be- fore the House of Lords, and deluged the Committee with the difficult and tedious details of many years' accumulation. But as, on the other hand, he saw his way clear to preserving a part, he was (though very reluctantly) persuaded by his friends to abandon the rather unpromising chance of keeping the whole ; and to secure that part relieved the House of Lords at once of his presence.
The case was certainly a peculiar one for the highest moral functionary in the realm to deal with in this manner. The Committee of the House of Lords have declared that three very serious charges against Mr. Edmunds in his capacity as Clerk of the Patents and of the Patent Commissioners are fully proved. The one charges him with using public moneys in his hands for purchasing stamps, on which discounts were allowed by the Stamp Office, and applying those discount allowances to his own use. The second charge is for having "improperly retained in his hands, or under his control," during a period of twelve years, "divers large sums of money received by him for fees or patents, which ought to have been from time to time during that period paid by him into Her Majesty's Exchequer." The third charge is that he from time to time transferred from his public account at Messrs. Coate's to his own private account, and "applied to his own use divers sums of public money for which he was accountable to Her Majesty." All these three charges are considered amply proved by the Com- mittee. All these charges had been made against Mr. Edmunds to the Lord Chancellor, and the evidence for them had been placed in the Chancellor's hands before the question arose as to Mr. Edmunds's dismissal from the Clerkship of the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor further knew that Mr.
Edmunds preferred not to meet these charges, hut rather to evade them by resigning his Patent-Office clerkships. Know- ing this one might have thought that a moral burden would be laid upon the keeper of the Royal conscience and the highest moral functionary in these realms. If so, however, the Lord Chancellor was too modest to take it up. "The Lord Chancellor," says the report, "states that he deliberately abstained from himself examining into the character of the defence which Mr. Edmunds had made, and into the subse- quent rejoinder of those who acted (as he might say) for the prosecution, because he had determined neither to form or express an opinion. Whatever he had to do be determined should be done under the judgment and direction of Lord Cranworth and Lord Singsdown." In other words, he de- liberately abdicated the ethical duties laid upon him in favour of Lord Cranworth and Lord Kingsdown, and afterwards again in favour of the Cabinet. He would not have an opinion at all upon the duty of expelling or preparing to expel Mr. Edmunds from office because—it is a very re- markable and emphatic because '— "he had determined neither to form nor express an opinion." What was the secret of this persevering policy of renunciation ? Was it that Lord Westbury felt the whole question an un- real one, that he did not choose to profess a conscience on these high ethical subjects, that he felt with the man who quaintly boasted "I'm the publican, not the Pharisee, thank God ! " and therefore remitted the question to those who did profess a conscience ? Or was it that the shadow of a possible successor to the vacant office flitted before his eyes in the person of the Honourable Slingaby Bethell, and that from that point of view he felt that he had a private motive for enforcing the moral conception of the business which made it a matter of honour for him to stand aside ? Or was it partly one feeling and partly the other, and an urgent fear of mixing up too closely the possible interests of his son with the vague and half-realized interests of public morality, which led him to refer his moral difficulties as Chancellor to these external authorities?
Anyhow it is to be regretted that one who evidently attaches so very unreal a notion to the interests of pub- lic morality should be charged with the responsibility of guarding them. For what was the result ? Lord Westbury would not decide for himself how far to menace Mr. Edmunds with punishment in case he continued to cling to his public duties, but consulted higher oracles—two Law Lords and the Cabinet. But he did not hesitate to decide for himself bow far he would endeavour to save Mr. Edmunds from the penalties of disgrace, if only he would vacate his post. Mr. William Brougham,—anxious, says the report, quoting from his solicitor, Mr. Leman, "to stop inquiry into the conduct of Mr. Edmunds," distinctly proposed to the Lord Chancellor to try and get Mr. Edmunds to resign, "if you will do what you can to help him to a peneion." The Lord Chancellor's reply was, "If he thinks proper to resign, I will do all I can with pro priety to obtain for him a pension,"—and this, remember, though he had determined "neither to form nor express an opinion" on the culpability of Ur. Edmunds. Now clearly if public morality required Mr. Edmunds's dismissal at all for his misdemeanours, it required that a distinguished func- tionary who had neither expressed nor formed an opinion as to the fact or degree of his guilt could not " with propriety" do anything to get him a good-service pension. One who ostenta- tiously left all the moral judgment in the matter to others, was acting with positive indecency in pledging his own services to ob- tain for a possible criminal a compensation for his proper punish- ment. Mr. Leman states, too, that on two subsequent occasions Lord Westbury distinctly promised that "if Mr. Edmunds would resign he would throw no obstacle in the way of his ob- taining a pension,"—the Lord Chancellor himself admitting that he did advise the resignation as "the best thing Mr. Edmunds could do," and that he did pledge himself not to throw any obstacle in the way of Mr. Edmunds's pension, but denying that this was held out by him as an inducement to Mr. Edmunds to resign. Of Course the distinction is almost metaphysical. And we confess we see no gain to the public -moral- ity, though there might be to the public safety, in merely dismissing (with a good-service pension and without public disgrace) a peculator of public moneys. If on the ground of publio morality it was essential to dismiss Mr. Edmunds, it was a flagrant thing for a man in the Lord Chancellor's position to offer his good offices to break the fall. And if the dismissal was necessary on the ground of public safety—that is, if it was no longer thought safe to trust Mr. Edmunds in any public office—it must have been still more necessary on the ground of public morality. It seems to us dear that Lord Westbury saw, and was conscious that he saw, in this esclandre chiefly the resulting vacancy, and that it was his nervousness on this head which made him so scrupulous in taking advice as to all active proceedings. He did not really estimate the immorality seriously, and therefore he was both fearful. of proceeding too strongly against Mr. Edmunds without external counsel, and quite easy about sparing the victim as much pain as possible when the resignation was once ensured. He was utterly unable to see that the only reason for dis- missing Mr. Edmunds from an office in which he had been guilty of no abuse was one which essentially demanded' more than a dismissal, an official disgrace —in short, an act of public justice. We confess we think the modified censure on Lord West- bury agreed to by all the Committee, and the stronger censure proposed by the minority and defeated only by a majority of one, alike inadequate. Without in any way prejudging the question of motive,—that a man with the Lord Chancellor's many high responsibilities, having avowedly neither "formed" nor "expressed" any opinion on the evidence against an officer charged with defalcations that were all but technically criminal, should yet promise to do all he could with propriety to obtain for that officer a good-service pension, strikes us es- ti breach of duty that it is impossible to pass over. If there were a selfish motive in the matter the case is worse. But- without this there is a moral cynicism in this utter indiffer- ence to the morality of the public service which no qualities,. however high, as a law reformer, ought to cancel, We can- not afford a Chancellor who, whether from good nature or less- honourable motives, determines to "know nothing" of the evidence against his subordinates, in order that he may break their fall with good-service pensions.