HC Deb 03 June 1808 vol 11 cc816-24

Lord Binning having moved the second reading of the bill to prohibit the Distillation of Spirits from Corn or Grain,

Mr. Brand

opposed it, on the principle that all political interference of the legislature with the industry and general pursuits of the country was bad. He would allow that particular circumstances might occur which would justify such interference. It might be allowed under well-founded apprehensions of scarcity, or as a measure of temporary policy. He knew, however, of no scarcity either existing or to be apprehended, which called for the present measure. Wheat, which might be considered as the principal food of man, was hardly ever known at a more steady price than it had been for several months past. In case, however, a scarcity should actually take place, he then wished that the crown should possess the power to stop the distilleries by a proclamation. Wheat had for a long time been at a low price, and a price so low as to be hardly adequate to repay the farmer. He therefore felt it his duty to resist the second reading.

Mr. Marryatt

said that as to the general principle of leaving agriculture to itself, and not interfering with it by any legislative provisions, that principle would, in justice, be as applicable to the interests of the West India planters, or to the commerce of the country, as to its agriculture. But it was known that the interests of the West India merchants had, in point of fact, been much interfered with by the legislature. Although by the contract under which our islands were cultivated, the planters were to have the monopoly of supplying the empire with sugar; yet, when we occupied St. Domingo, we received 100,000 hogsheads annually from that colony, in competition with the produce of our own colonies, and in violation of the contract made with them. Again, when it was represented that the planters held up the price of their sugar too high, parliament interfered, and let in East India sugar in competition with it. At the time that parliament resolved on this measure, he did not recollect that a single country gentleman raised his voice against the interference of the legislature with the price of the produce of the West India cultivation. If the principle was good in the one case, why was it not also good in the other? Those country gentlemen, who now laid it down so broadly in their lectures on political economy, never thought of such a principle, until their own interests were touched. One hon. gent, a great land proprietor (Mr. Coke, of Norfolk), had on a former occasion, compared the West India islands, in value, to ozier islands in the Thames. He would tell the hon. gent, however, that the commerce of the West Indies did most materially increase the wealth and prosperity of this country, and that the increase of national wealth and prosperity had increased very much the rents and value of his great estates. The country gentlemen who oppose this bill seemed not only to have formed a system of political economy for themselves, but they had formed a new mode of arithmetic for themselves. By the common notions of arithmetic, the more you subtracted from a thing, the less remained; but by the arithmetic of the country gentlemen, the more you took away from the stock of corn in the market, the more you destroyed in distilleries, or in any other way, the more would be left to secure the country against scarcity. They knew, however, that this was proposed merely as a temporary measure, and that if any practical ill effects should follow from it, ministers would have it in their power to suspend the operation of this act at any time. He thought, that when the measure was brought forward as a West India question, it was brought forward as a British question; for he conceived that the planters and cultivators of our West India colonies were as much British subjects as the inhabitants of the metropolis. Although the Atlantic rolled between us and them, yet their interests were united with ours; their habits and feelings were British; they were proud of being governed by British laws. It was in this country that they looked to end their days; their affections were turned to Britain, and they called it their mother country. He hoped, then, that the mother country would not act the part of an unnatural parent. At present there were but about 35,000 hogsheads of sugar at the West India docks, but by October, when the next crop came in, there would be above 300,000. The average produce of our settlements for many years had been 270,000 hogsheads, and 30,000 would surely come in from the Danish islands we had lately captured. The consumption of the British empire had never been more than 200,000 hogsheads annually, and therefore it was most evident that the planters must be reduced to great distress as long as the accustomed.

markets were shut against their produce. Against the next year, both the West India cultivators and the British farmers would know how to calculate the exertions that they should make. The great objects of Buonaparte were, first, to ruin our commerce through our colonies; and secondly, to starve the people of this country into submission. If relief was refused to the West India merchants, it was probable that both these objects would be obtained. The colonies would certainly be ruined, and the first bad harvest might go near to starve the country, as long as there was no place to import from. He thought that the measure would not at all prevent the farmers from getting a fair price for their Corn, although it might prevent them from getting a most exorbitant price.

Mr. Eden

contended that the present situation of the world, was the strongest argument against any discouragement of agriculture. It was most impolitic to narrow the market, and thereby diminish the production of grain. From the Report of the Committee itself, it appeared that it was improper to extend the measure to Ireland. The distress of the West India colonies was said to spring from the stoppage of the intercourse with the continent. Ministers affirmed that the Orders in Council would open this. These Orders had been six months in operation, and what had they done? The intercourse had only been more effectually put an end to, and the distress of the planters augmented. The best measure of relief would be to open the intercourse direct between the colonies and other nations, while the present state of things continued. He concluded, by declaring his opposition to the measure.

Mr. Bragge Bathurst

thought that the general principle which was laid down respecting the impropriety of legislative interference, must be applicable only in general cases. The same principle was equally applicable to the commerce of the country as to its agriculture; and yet, in practice, it was found absolutely necessary for the legislature often to interfere in the affairs of commerce. The evils under which we laboured at the present moment were these: we were excluded from importing, (as we had been accustomed) the surplus corn of other countries to meet a failure of the harvest, and at the same time we were pressed with a glut of West India produce. Those temporary evils could not be remedied by the appli- cation of any general abstract principle. He thought the present measure well calculated to relieve the West India planters, and at the same time to diminish the alarm which prevailed in some parts of the United Kingdom of a scarcity.

Mr. Davies Giddy

objected to the measure, as he thought the interference of the legislature, upon any occasion, with the agriculture or commerce of the country, was highly injurious; excepting in cases of scarcity, of which at present there was not the smallest appearance.

Mr. Coke

hoped that ministers would not press a measure, when their majorities were so very small, and when the minority was so respectable. It was true, that perhaps they might derive more support from the manufacturing and commercial interests, but he hoped that consideration would not prevent them from doing justice to the landed interest. If he had ever used the term 'gambling speculations' to the cultivation of the colonies, he had certainly never meant to apply the term in an offensive sense; but he was surprised that none of the West India gentlemen ever spoke without using the word monopoly, which was a term that had not been applied to them; and yet he could not conceive how there could exist any great monopoly of corn in this country; whereas there might easily be a monopoly of sugar, as that was an article which was kept in few hands. He thought it was absolute nonsense to think of fixing a maximum in the price of corn. The bad effects of attempting a minimum in the price of labour had been already felt. As to the profits of farmers, he thought it but reasonable that if one part of their crop failed, as it notoriously did at the last harvest, they should charge something more on that part which had not failed. This was the only mode by which they could pay their rent, taxes, and other expences.

Mr. Eyre

said, that if he thought the measure before the house was at all calculated to affect the interests of agriculture, or to produce that scarcity which it was intended to prevent, he should be one of the last men in the world to vote for it. The landed interest had taken a false alarm on the subject. He highly approved of relieving the West India merchants, from which the landed interest would ultimately derive the greatest benefit.

Mr. Wilberforce

was of opinion that the interest of the planter and the interest of the farmer were not only compatible; but inseparable. The manufacturers of the populous county which he had the honour to represent, were enlightened enough to be completely convinced of this fact. So far was this from a rash and injudicious interference with the interests of agriculture, that he was satisfied the measure under consideration would operate as a protection to them; and he felt, and believed the country at large would feel, that his majesty's ministers had exercised a sound discretion in the support of this bill.

Mr. Calvert,

adverting to the clamours about high prices, observed, that if we were to raise our own supplies, the farmer must have a price that might render it worth his while to cultivate poor as well as rich land.

Sir John Newport

deprecated the tampering with the agriculture of the country, and declared, that this measure would be of the most fatal consequence to the tillage of Ireland, which was becoming a great source of supply to Great Britain. Every thing that he had heard only confirmed his objection to the measure. To prove that there was no actual scarcity, he stated from competent authority that the price of grain was falling in those places where from the stoppage of intercourse with the neighbouring districts, it had risen to the greatest height.

Mr. Manning

spoke in favour of the bill, which was absolutely necessary to prevent the ruin of the colonies.

Mr. Loveden

spoke as follows:—Sir, after all the attention in my power to bestow on this subject, and after mature consideration of every argument that has been urged in its favour, I cannot say that it appears to me either necessary or expedient. No case whatever has been made out to justify such a dangerous interference with the agriculture of the kingdom; it has not even the ground of probability to support it, and rests its dependance solely on the apprehension that a measure of this kind may become necessary hereafter. Now, sir, if merely upon the bare possibility of a change becoming necessary in the law of the land, we are to proceed and make a most serious innovation on conjecture alone, not on any established fact, are gentlemen aware of the mischievous consequences that may and will arise from the establishment of such a fatal precedent? To sanction this bill we ought to have a strong case before us; none such appears, and I must contend that it has not probability in its favour. All the accounts from the country afford reason for us to expect a plentiful harvest, and in addition thereto we hear from all parts of the cyder counties, that the produce of apples and pears is likely to prove abundant. Every one knows that a good cyder year depresses the barley market, that com therefore is not likely to bear a price adequate to the expence of cultivation; if, contrary to all these more favourable expectations, an unforeseen calamity should happen to blast the ensuing harvest, then the ministers may avail themselves of the king's prerogative to stop the distilleries, by proclamation, and no member of this house will object to a bill of indemnity. I cannot help noticing, sir, the charge of inconsistency urged against the farmers. All the bad consequences they predicted are said to be imaginary, because corn has risen in price since the discussion of this measure. Why, sir, it is in consequence of such discussion within these walls that an advance has taken place, and every man expected it who knew any thing of the subject. The distillers have bought an unusual quantity; speculators have been at work; the advance is temporary; serious mischief will follow, and depression take place at the next harvest. The last harvest was in many places scanty with respect to barley and pulse, yet we have gone on well: it has given us a sufficient supply, and at a moderate price. If we let the fanner alone, we shall provide sufficient corn without any importation. With respect to wheat, we have obtained a very considerable increased supply from the introduction of threshing machines. Much corn used to be left in the straw when the flail was only used; it was wasted; now every grain is brought forward in aid of the consumption. Being therefore of opinion that no justifiable reason has been offered in support of this bill, that it is adverse to the true interest of our country, it must have my decided opposition.

Lord Burghersh

stated the fact, that in Feb. 1802, the price of wheat was higher at the opening of the distilleries than now when they were to be shut; and then there could not be a prospect of an abundant harvest, which we at present had. This fact was a complete answer to all that had been said respecting a scarcity.

Sir James Hall

said, we had been told from, the throne that the eyes of Europe are upon us. The landed gentlemen who sat in this house would do well to recollect, that the eyes of the British empire, the eyes of their constituents were upon them. He had not the honour to represent a county, but his feelings were the same as if he did. Were he to acquiesce in this measure, or willingly to miss any opportunity that occurred of opposing it, he should be conscious that he had abandoned rights which he was bound to defend, and that he had contributed to lay the foundation of future famines.

Mr. Western

said, that as he had expressed his sentiments pretty fully upon the subject before the house the last time it was under consideration, he should not then long intrude upon their patience, but he could not help entreating the hon. gentlemen opposite, that at least they would state some specific reasons to justify the apprehensions which had been declared of a scarcity of grain in the country. The hon. gentlemen would make no reply upon a topic which had been again urged, and had been particularly referred to, by an hon. baronet, (sir G. Warrender), namely, the market price of corn, of wheat in particular, at which it was then proposed to prohibit the grain distillery, as compared with what it was upon former occasions, when the same measure was adopted. Wheat was then at the time he was speaking only 72s. in 1795. It had arisen in July to 84s., and in August to 108s.; in Dec. 1800 it was at 125s. barley at 71s. before the suspension was determined upon, and it was taken off at a time when it was higher than at the moment it was then proposed to be put on. Not one of his majesty's ministers, nor any other hon. gent. had thought proper to make any answer to, nor any comment upon these observations, but he trusted he should hear something stated upon the subject in the course of that night's debate. Mr. W. said, he begged the house to consider, if they sanctioned the proposed measure upon the only grounds that had yet been stated, what circumstances they could expect to arise that would render it less necessary next year or the year after. The loss of the foreign supply was in truth the only reason that could be fairly insisted upon. Did they then mean to say that they expected the ports again to be open next year, or were they sanguine enough to believe that without the foreign supply, corn would be cheaper than it had been this year? He, for his part, could hardly ima- gine it would; oats might be somewhat cheaper, and so might peas and beans if the crop was better, but he hardly thought it likely that wheat would, or that upon the whole we should be more plentifully supplied with grain than at present. There was no probability that the same reasons would not exist, if reasons they could be called, for stopping the distilleries next year, which prevailed at that time. He then observed that several gentlemen had remarked, that it was extraordinary the landed interest should so much complain of the loss of the distillery market, when at the same time they were so patient under and so little complained of the animal importation of foreign corn, and which operated to the full as injuriously upon the agriculture of the country as the proposed measure could possibly do. But those hon. gentlemen Mere compleatly mistaken in their ideas upon that subject. The landed interest did sensibly feel the injury done to British agriculture by the facility of importation of corn of foreign growth, but they felt also the impropriety and impolicy of making these topics the subject of frequent parliamentary discussion. Had those hon. gentlemen forgot that only four years ago an act passed to check the importation of foreign corn in consequence of the strong representations of the landed interest upon the subject at that time? Had they forgot the clamour that was raised against that measure, and the difficulty there was in overcoming those clamours, notwithstanding the support it received in parliament, and the very limited extent to which the principle of that bill was confined? The landed interest did certainly feel strongly that nothing could be more injurious and more impolitic than encouraging the agriculture of foreign countries at the expence of our own. We had all the means of providing for our own subsistence, we had lands, capital, industry, agricultural science, nothing was requisite but proper encouragement, and proper security. It was the height of absurdity to continue such a system of laws and regulations relating to the corn trade as in truth operated to depress the agriculture of our own country, and encourage that of foreign nations; even now, since the passing of the act of 1804, the British markets had been constantly open to foreigners, and the British growers as constantly deprived of any reciprocal advantage. It was true that the provisions of that law were such that the importation would have been checked had the average price fallen to 66s. per qr. wheat, and that was a considerable advantage in the security to the farmers against an excessive depression, compared with the act previously existing, but it ought to be stopped at a much earlier period. The prejudices of the people however were strong upon these subjects, and unfortunately their opinions were too generally mistaken and operating against their own object and interests. In the year 1795 the table of the house was covered with petitions signed by thousands of persons, praying the repeal of that law, and expressing their desire in very urgent terms. Neither the administration of that day, however, nor the majority of the house, thought it advisable to comply with the wishes of the petitioners, and it was very fortunate they did not, for the repeal of that measure would have materially damped the spirit of improving agriculture, and we should have now had to deplore the effects. In this instance there was another proof of the different policy which then prevailed, contrasted with that which seemed to govern his majesty's ministers at the present moment; the price of wheat was higher by above ten shillings per quarter when these petitions were presented to the house than it was then, when the grain distillery was about to be prohibited. These circumstances altogether proved, that the landed interest was not indifferent to the importation of foreign corn, though solicitous at the same time to avoid the agitation of questions of such a nature as had always been found to create a considerable degree of uneasiness in the minds of the people.

Lord W. Russell

expressed his surprise at the silence of ministers on a question of this importance. He wished to know, whether they considered themselves as responsible for this measure, which was brought forward under such suspicious circumstances. He asked, whether it was wise or politic to restrict agriculture in the present circumstances of the country? The proposition appeared to him inconsistent with common sense.

The house then divided; for the second reading 90, against it 3d. Majority 51.