HC Deb 06 March 1815 vol 30 cc15-27

The Chancellor of the Exchequer moved the order of the day for the House to resolve itself into a committee on the Corn Bill. On the question, that the Speaker do leave the chair,

Sir Gilbert Heathcote

rose to object to it. He said, that improper motives had been imputed to the landed proprietors; but, however faulty their motives might have been, the blame was more attributable to the Government, who had given their sanction to the measure, when their duty ought to have pointed out to them that they had no right or business to interfere between two parties so situated as were the landed proprietors and the manufacturing interests; nay, indeed, as appeared from the innumerable petitions, he might say between the landed interest and a vast majority of the whole nation. But he must now call the attention of the House to the real question, which was this. The Government wanted to wind up the expenses of the war; the sum was no less than 20,000,000l.; and in order to prevail on the landed interest to support them in the measures necessary to raise this sum, ministers had thrown out the alluring bait of giving their aid to this measure respecting the corn laws. It was in vain to come to any fair decision on the subject by the means which had been proposed; the only way to meet the matter fairly, would be by an immediate reduction of the rents; and looking the subject honestly in the face, with a due recollection of what had taken place in the case of the rents since 1791, he thought a reduction of one-third might very reasonably take place, which would be a most wholesome relief to the cultivator of the soil. The House was told that 80s. was a very fair and moderate price, but on what authority did they receive this information? Look to the report, and it would be found, that they were to bottom themselves on the opinions of land-surveyors, who received a percentage according to the high value they put upon rents, by which, according to the arguments held up in favour of the present measure, the landholders were to fix the price of corn on the whole population of the kingdom. The true method of procedure would be to lower the rents, which could not fail to produce the best possible effect, and would render the present very unpopular measure totally unnecessary. He was himself a considerable landholder; and from the first moment of his being so, he had always objected to high rents, as tending to prevent all good offices between landlord and tenant, and to weaken, if not in course of time finally to destroy that desirable attachment which, in his opinion, ought ever to subsist between persons so closely and intimately connected in point of mutual interests. He thought the present measure might be avoided by empowering the Prince Regent, with the advice of his privy council, to stop the importation of foreign corn, whenever it might be found necessary, and by that means make the measure a temporary one. In addition to this, it ought to be the peculiar care and conduct of ministers to introduce economy into every department, both civil and military; and he had not a doubt but by these means the country would be relieved from its present pressure, without resorting to a measure so unpopular as the present Bill evidently was to the whole nation. He wished most particularly to call the attention of the landed interest to the melancholy events which were consequent on the French revolution. He would beg them to recollect who were the persons that formed the great mass of the refugees who emigrated to this country on that lamentable occasion. They would find that the great majority of these unhappy fugitives from their native land were great landed proprietors, who had brought on the revolution and the direful effects attendant on it, by rack rents, and treating with contempt the calls of a suffering people, groaning under their weight and pressure.

Mr. Horace St. Paul

declared, that he would not have troubled the House with the expression of his sentiments, but for the precipitation that marked this measure in every stage of its progress—precipitate he would call it, with respect to the country, in not affording the people an opportunity of expressing their opinions on the subject—precipitate, likewise, as it respected the members of parliament, in not granting them a sufficient time to form their judgment—and, finally, he conceived it precipitate even for the ministers, from the imputation that might be cast on them, of hurrying it, as if they were apprehensive of its justice and policy: and certainly such an opinion might naturally be entertained, for the refusal of a reasonable time to examine its expediency, displayed symptoms of such an apprehension. He had now risen to enter his protest against their proceedings, and after having given the most anxious consideration to the subject, he had arrived at this conclusion, that all legislation on the article of corn was in the present instance unwise and premature; and, however he might think a protecting price ultimately necessary for the farmer, he would oppose such a law, while we were still ignorant of the veal state of the affairs of Europe. At present it was impossible to decide on this question; and it might be esteemed somewhat presumptuous to settle a price before we could ascertain the state of our currency, and our various relations with other powers. We were now proceeding in darkness and ignorance, without even that knowledge to direct us which we might have expected from its being made a ministerial question. But what must have been the surprise of the House to find that the speech of the right hon. gentleman who so modestly introduced this measure, contained no information on the subject—nothing new—nothing to instruct. The hon. member next observed, that the evils suffered last year by the agriculturists no longer existed; there was now no glut of foreign corn in the market, no property-tax, and the war with America was now terminated; these circumstances should weigh considerably in the decision of this question. The House likewise should consider who those persons were that promoted this measure, who the committee were that sat on the subject. Many of them were prejudiced in favour of it. Who were the evidence? Men whose characters were raised in proportion to the rise of land. Every landholder, he contended; was interested in this, for they would gain considerably in the amount of their rents. If corn was raised from 60s. to 70s. the landlord would gain a guinea an acre; if to 80s. he would gain 2l. 11s. [A laugh, and cries of Hear, hear!] The House might be surprised at this. Gentlemen might laugh within those walls, but there was but little laughing on this subject without them. But he would prove his assertion. An acre of land, at a low average, produced three quarters of wheat. If there was an increase of 7s. a quarter, there must consequently be a clear gain of one guinea an acre; and if the price be raised to 80s. he fancied that on a fair calculation he would not be found to have over-rated the profits. As to the argument brought forward by certain hon. members, that the amount of rent made no difference in this question, he would not insult the understandings of the House by dwelling on it; but he would assure them, that fanners in general were hostile to this Bill, because it would afford a pretence to the landlords not to abate their rents. He could not agree with those who asserted that low prices would produce idleness. He knew that among manufacturers a man might earn as much in, three days as would support him for a week; but in agricultural labour the business must advance regularly, and without intermission. But who, he asked, supported the poor in the great scarcity? Not landholders or farmers, but the merchants and shopkeepers—No one, said the hon. gentleman, condescended, on the first night of debating this question, to mention the effect it would have on the quartern loaf. A worthy baronet (sir James Shaw) had proved that when the average price of corn was 80s., the quartern loaf was considerably above 1s.; and his arguments were answered only by the assertion, that they were calculated to stultify the understandings of the House. It had been said that the people decided on the measure by fueling, rather than reason. How else, he would ask, could they decide, when their families were starving? He prayed the House to pause before they decided on so momentous a point; and declared that although a friend to the landed interest, he considered the general welfare of the empire as more important. The hon. gentleman then enumerated the various circumstances which were connected with this question; and observed, that if the House were deficient in information on any one of these points, they ought to pause; until they were perfectly satisfied. They ought to be completely acquainted with all the circumstances growing out of the situation of the times. At the present moment, when the affairs of Europe were by no means settled, when a great variety of interests were to be balanced, he thought the House ought not to precipitate a measure of such vital importance. He considered the hurrying of this Bill through the House, at this period, as originating in the grossest prejudice and ignorance of the subject: But, at the same time, he believed that there was not an individual in that House who was desirous of raising the price of corn on the community. The hon. gentleman concluded by observing, that they would assist the agricultural interest more by abstaining, at present, from any interference with the corn laws, than by pressing forward this or any other measure connected with the subject.

Mr. Vyse

declared himself to be friendly to the interests of the agriculturist, which it was his intention to support, not from any partial or unworthy motive, but because, if some measure like that before the House were not followed up, the state would be menaced with the greatest danger. He was convinced, that the effect of the measure would be, not to make bread dear, but to make it permanently cheap. The Bill before the House had been, in his opinion, met with unmerited reprobation within doors, and with machinations and contrivances without. If a bill protecting the agriculturist, were not sanctioned by that House, the consequence would be, that Trance, who could not fight this country in a time of war, would have the power of starving her in a period of peace. From one end of the country to the other, if the object and intention of the Bill were clearly explained—if its merits were fairly described—if it were shown to be a measure, as it really was, which would benefit no class in particular, bat would be useful to all—then he was sure that a greater number of persons would express themselves in favour of the proposed alteration, than had been induced to declare their hostility to it. Much clamour had been unfairly excited against the Bill; but if the clamour were ten times greater, he would support it. He felt it his duty, after coolly and conscien- tiously considering the question—after examining it, as far as his judgment allowed him, in its various bearings, to give the measure before the House, important as it was to every branch of the community, from one end of the empire to the other, his decided support. To make the legislature beloved and respected, it was necessary that they should act in a firm and determined manner. They would never be able to keep themselves in that proud and honourable situation, if, by clamours without doors, and by cheers within, they were deterred from pursuing that course, which their judgment pointed out to them as the most desirable to be followed. It was not his intention, on the grounds stated by an hon. gentleman near him, to vote for 80s. as the protecting price; but he would support 76s., and he thought, by so doing, that he should be essentially serving the best interests of the country.

Mr. Ellison

supported the motion, and observed, that the assize of bread rendered the price of that necessary of life higher in London than in the country. He thought the amount of the protecting price was comparatively of little consequence. If 76s. was agreeable to the country, he should be very well satisfied; the object was to give confidence to the farmer. It would be most unjust that the agriculturist, after sinking his capital in his land, should be open to the competition of the foreign corn grower, who, from the small burthens to which he was subjected, might undersell him. He said, that when individuals had applied to him on the subject of petitioning parliament with reference to this measure, he had endeavoured to dissuade them from any interference, because he thought the question had better be left to the deliberative wisdom of parliament, which would adopt such measures, and such measures only, as were calculated to benefit the empire in general. He was extremely adverse to the line of argument taken by those who opposed the Bill, which went to divide the country into two classes, the agricultural and the manufacturing. Now, he had always considered their interests as one and the same; he had ever looked upon the people of England as one great united body, however subdivided with respect to their pursuits and professions. No man despised clamour more than he did. They were met together to do their duty, and he trusted they would not be by noise and tumult, from adopting that which they conceived to be a wise measure. The times pressed hard on the grower of corn, and on every individual who was connected with the agriculture of the country. They had laid out their money for the general benefit, and it would be most unjust if they were not now supported. If the agricultural interest were suffered to decay, the ruin of the manufacturer, who would be unable to sell his goods in consequence, would soon follow. It was most important, in a national point of view, that the country should be rendered adequate to the supply of its population, instead of depending on foreign states, for an article of the first importance. So desirable a state of things could only be produced by affording a fair remuneration to the farmer; and all the provisions of the present Bill went, he contended, to procure for the manufacturers, and for the people in general, an abundant supply of bread at a permanently cheap rate. It was well said by the celebrated Swift, that he was the best statesman, who made three blades of grass grow where only one grew before; and certainly he who caused two blades of corn to grow, where ordinarily but one appeared, was worthy of great praise. It was to produce this effect that the Bill was brought forward; and such an object, he conceived, ought to be generally supported. It seemed to be imagined by many, that there was no fear of the farmer giving up the cultivation of grain en his land. But if the manufacturer was not properly remunerated for his skill and labour, would he continue to expend his capital? Certainly he would not. And, if the farmer was not protected, why should it be supposed that he would continue a losing trade?

Mr. Cartwright

spoke in favour of going into the committee, which was the proper place for settling what the protecting price ought to be. He was extremely surprised that any gentleman should use the language he had heard in that House. It was said, by an hon. member, that it was intended, by this measure, to starve the people. Such assertions, be knew, were calculated to occasion a ferment in the public mind; but he would beg gentlemen to recollect, that when a ferment was once raised, it was not an easy matter to cool it. He again pressed upon the House the necessity of going into the committee, where they might deliberate on the price with which it would be most proper to fill up the blanks. He trusted the House would permit no farther delay in the progress of this business. The measure was of the first importance, since it went to render England independent of foreign countries, with respect to a constant supply of grain. It was only intended to secure to the fanner such a fair remuneration for his labour, as would induce him to pursue the system of cultivation; and, so far from any blame being attached to ministers for the part they had taken on this occasion, be conceived they deserved the thanks of the country for their exertions.

Mr. St. Paul

explained. He meant not to attribute any ill intention to the members of that House. He had spoken merely of the probable effect of the Bill, without any improper reference to the motives of those who supported it.

General Gascoyne

said, that as it seemed that no lower price would satisfy the supporters of the Bill than 80s. he should oppose the Speaker's leaving the chair. The assertion of the right hon. gentleman, that the effect of the measure would be to lower the price of corn was so extraordinary, that he had at the time thought he must have misconceived it; but it had been explained by the surveyor-general of woods and forests, that in the next ten years the average price would be lower than it had been in the last ten years. As few of the members of the House might survive to disprove this assertion, the prophecy was a safe one. If the right hon. gentleman could persuade the people that the effect of the Bill would be to lower the price of corn, there would be little opposition to it from them; but, on the other hand, what the farmers complained of was the low price, so that they would be ill satisfied, unless the right hon. gentleman could shew them that it would raise the price. If the present measure were carried, a Bill might be next introduced on the part of the apothecaries, to oblige the people to take a certain quantity of physic for ten years, that they might have the less to take the ten years after. It was clear that the present effect of the Bill would be to raise the price, whatever the future effect might be. He moved as an amendment, that the House do resolve itself into the committee on the first day after the Easter recess.

Mr. Robinson

said, he had been much misunderstood by the gallant general, but the present was not the time to go again through the whole of his former speech, If the gallant general supposed that he was capable of holding different lines of argument to different classes of persons, he must have been but ill acquainted with his character.

Mr. Buller

stated, that he had in his hand a petition, signed by 20,000 persons, from the place which he had the honour to represent, against any alteration in the present corn laws. He hoped the House would not act precipitately.

Lord Compton

entered into a short statement, to prove the fallacy of the arguments adduced by an hon. baronet (sir James Shaw) on a former night. He contended that the hon. Báronet's data led to conclusions quite different from those he had drawn from them. He was sure the hon. baronet had no wish to mislead the House, but when statements were made, which would probably have a great effect on the public mind, gentlemen ought to take care that they were well founded. The noble lord then proceeded to argue in favour of the Bill, which he conceived absolutely necessary for the protection of the agricultural interest, and consequently for the benefit of the country in general.

Mr. Alderman C. Smith

expressed himself in favour of the amendment. He had been informed, by several farmers, and he believed it to be the fact, that the measure would be of no service to them, though it would essentially benefit the great landholders.

Mr. Protheroe

supported the amendment. It would afford an opportunity for considering whether a medium price might not be taken, which would relieve the agiculturists, and yet meet the general feeling of the country. As to the observation of a ferment being not easy to be appeased, he would certainly say, that the appearance of precipitation was not the best way of appeasing it.

Sir W. W. Wynn

contended, that it was absolutely necessary something should be done for the relief of the cultivators of the soil. He should certainly vote for the Bill going into a committee, although he would not pledge himself to the adoption of any particular protecting price. He was inclined to think that 75s. a quarter would be an eligible sum.

Mr. Marryatt

observed, that when the business was first introduced, the fact of no petitions having been presented against it, was advanced as an argument to prove that the popular feeling was changed, and that the measure was a very proper one. Since that time, however, petitions had poured in from every part of the country, expressive of the strongest hostility to the measure. Now, if the silence of the people in the first instance, was insisted on as a proof of the excellence of the measure, he thought their disapprobation, powerfully expressed as it had been, ought to have some weight in the opposite scale. He was very anxious that a little more time should be allowed for considering the question. They had been so constantly employed in debating, that no time had been left for thinking. By a little delay they would be enabled to come to a decision more consistent with their own dignity, and infinitely more satisfactory to the public. Impressed with these sentiments, he should vote for the amendment.

Mr. Calcraft

thought that precipitation was altogether unjustifiable under the present circumstances, when the ports were shut for three months. He must observe, that on former occasions the legislature was not so precipitate. In 1773, the bill which was introduced on the 1st of December was not out of the House till the month of April. In 1791, the bill was brought in the 16th of December, and was not passed till the 27th of May following. In 1804, the bill was brought in the 14th of May, and although it was late in the session, it was not passed until the 26th of July. He thought that if the Bill could be arrested in its course, only for a few short days, as proposed by the hon. general, some terms of conciliation might be fixed on. The feeling of the people on this subject was well known; and although the legislature were not to be overawed by the expression of this feeling, yet the voice of the people was deserving their most serious attention. He denied that the price of grain was falling in the way many gentlemen had stated; and, in proof of his position, he quoted the returns published in the Gazette, from which it appeared, that in January last corn was 59s. per quarter, and by the last return it was 67s. 3d.

Mr. William Smith

declared, that he had often told his constituents that on a question of a local nature he should solicitously obey their instructions, but that on one affecting the whole community, while he listened to their opinion, he must be permitted to exercise his own judgment. In this case, however, although he had not received any instructions from his constituents he bad reason to believe that their opinion and his own coincided. On the best examination into which he had been able to enter of all the evidence on the table, he was convinced that 80s. was too high a protecting price. He should therefore vote for the postponement.—The House divided on general Gascoyne's motion: Yeas, 61; Noes, 187. A second division then took place, on the question, that the Speaker do now leave the chair, when the numbers were: Yeas, 194; Noes 54. The House then went into the committee. The first and second resolutions were agreed to. On the resolution being read, which went to fix the price at which corn might be imported,

Mr. Robinson

rose, to propose that the blank should be filled up, by inserting the sum of 80s. a quarter. This subject had already been so fully discussed in different stages of the measure, that he thought that the House would not now expect him to go over the argument again.

General Gascoyne

said, that he should follow the example of the right hon. gentleman. In proposing an amendment to the motion, he thought it unnecessary to repeat the arguments that had already been advanced; but in order to conciliate the feelings of the people with the measure proposed, he should move, as an amendment, that the blank should be filled up with the words 74s. instead of 80s.

Mr. Brooke

supported the amendment.

Mr. Courtenay

supported the amendment. He had conversed with many members on this subject; and neither from conversations, nor from any thing that had fallen in that House, was he able to learn upon what grounds any member had fixed upon 80s. as the proper price. If it was not apparent why 80s. was the proper price for England, it was much less evident that it was the proper price for Ireland. If it was said that the English cultivators could not bring their corn into market under 80s. he believed that no Irish gentleman would say, that the Irish cultivators could not afford it cheaper. In the county that he was most connected with in England, it was generally supposed that corn could be afforded at a lower rate than 80s.; and from his knowledge of Ireland, he was sure that it could be grown there much cheaper. The Irish cultivators whom he had conversed with did not conceive such a price to be necessary. Unless members were satisfied that 80s. was a price abso- lutely necessary for the protection of our agriculturists, he could not see upon what grounds they could support it.

Mr. Western

expressed his anxiety to go to the utmost possible extent, short of rendering the measure a nullity, in order to make it one of conciliation. He felt how important it was to convince the people of the fact, namely, that parliament were legislating as much for their interest as for that of any particular class of the community; but he would not consent to give up the efficacy of the Bill for the purpose of consulting a temporary feeling. His persuasion on the subject was founded, not on theory, but on experience, and that the experience of nearly a century. For 79 years, during which period the duty on the importation of foreign corn amounted almost to a prohibition, corn in this country was at a price lower than it had been at anterior, and than it was at subsequent periods. This was a fact on which the opponents of the measure ought to dwell. One hon. gentleman who had noticed it, attributed it to the poverty of the country at that time, but of this there was no proof. On they contrary, from 1710 (the period at which the system he had described was in full operation) down to 1764, not only did agriculture improve, but commerce and manufactures kept pace with it. Agriculture had, in fact, so much improved within that interval, that bread was cheaper than it had been at any anterior or subsequent periods, while our exports and imports had advanced from 10 to 25,000,000l. per annum. But the great cause which called for the interposition of the House upon this subject in order to encourage agriculture was the amount of our taxation, which so far exceeded that of France, that it was impossible our agriculture could go on, unless it was adequately protected. With a view to that protection the present measure was brought forward; and the effect of that measure would, he was confident, be in the end to lower the price of corn. Consequently it would serve to benefit the public, and therefore, he trusted, that no popular clamour, which must be temporary, would prevent the legislature from adopting a measure, the happy results of which must be permanent. For his part, he had no hesitation in stating, that the popular clamour should be withstood, and the more so because he was persuaded that it was mainly the effect of delusion. He estimated the opi- nion of the people as highly as any man; but he would never give up his own right of judgment, and he hoped that such was the resolution of every man who heard him. For if otherwise, they must give up even the government of the country. Not only the present administration, but any other, must give way if the will of the people were to be uncontrollable. He trusted, therefore, that the House would maintain its honour and character by persevering in the course which it deemed to be right; that it would not allow itself to be swayed by petitions, for the people might as well petition for the abolition of their liberties as for the abandonment of the measure under consideration, which involved their dearest interests. It was notorious that the people were too easily misled; that there were but too many always ready to misguide and inflame them: those, however, who were most forward to flatter the people, were, they might rest assured, very willing to deceive them. He knew that the people were deceived upon this subject, and therefore he would not capitulate to their wishes. But his right to decide for himself on all public questions, was the doctrine which he always avowed. When he became candidate for Essex, he told the electors that he went into parliament from and for them; but that he would not obey them, that he would be governed on all occasions by his own judgment and opinion, while he would never cease to consult their interest. That interest he consulted in this instance; for it was his firm conviction that the present measure, if carried with due efficacy, would tend most materially to their benefit. But the measure was egregiously misunderstood. When the people called out for cheap bread, they did not understand the meaning of their cry; for the true meaning of cheap bread was nothing else than cheap labour; and if so generally comprehended, he had no doubt that the general cry would be in favour of the measure before the committee.