HC Deb 24 December 1819 vol 41 cc1569-82
Mr. Irving

said, a petition had been put into his hands, signed by a number of respectable persons, merchants and traders of London, whose object was to call the attention of the House to the commercial distress of the country. These persons approached the House with no factious views. They did not desire to interfere with or interrupt the course which parliament might desire to take on other questions, and they were the rather convinced that ministers would not be inattentive to their requests, because they had made efforts lately to meet the wishes expressed in the petition of another respectable trading body. They thought they had a right to expect that parliament and the ministers would examine into the causes from which the distress had arisen. He had no instruction to state by what measure the petitioners imagined that relief would be found. On his own part he suggested, that in the course of an inquiry, the attention of the House would be probably called to that system of restriction and restraint, which, though it might have been advisable in time of war, was hardly desirable to be continued in a time of peace. He thought too, they might look for some benefit to the commerce of the country by an extension of the trade in the Eastern world, and that even under the article of the East India Company's charter, some arrangements might be made in favour of our shipping interest. He alluded to the trade between China and the continent of Europe, in which the India company took no interest, and which was now entirely carried on under the American flag. He believed it would be found, too, that the change in the currency of the country was one of the chief causes of the evils that were felt among all classes of the community. But he entirely agreed on this subject with the House, that it was not now wise to retrace the steps that had been taken. A fit object of inquiry, however, was, whether the several stages of the return to cash payments could be modified? He alluded particularly to the bullion payments, and to the question which had been started, whether the price fixed for bullion in the first payment should not continue during the whole time of the preparatory transaction? It should be inquired also whether payments in silver might not answer all purposes as well as gold? He had no fear, however, that gold or silver, would be applied for. There was nothing in our foreign relations that induced him to apprehend it. But fears on these subjects out-run facts. The prudent, the cautious, or the timid, were afraid that the system might burst on them, and their efforts to escape apprehended evils was one great cause of the real distress of the country. He did not think a committee of inquiry would find much ground for expecting relief from the proposals of his hon. friend, the member for Portarlington. An inquiry into the corn laws on the principle recommended by his hon. friend would only, in his opinion, bring the agricultural into the state of the commercial interests. Neither did he expect much from inquiries into the poor laws or taxation; still less from the proposal for paying oft' the national debt. These, however, were merely suggestions on his part, without communication with the petitioners. He hoped, in the course of the adjournment, the ministers, and particularly a right hon. gentleman in his eye would inquire into the subject of the petition.

The petition was brought up and read. It sat forth "That the Petitioner, being deeply impressed with a sense of the present distressed state of the commercial and manufacturing interests, of the general want of confidence, and of the extensive and increassing evils which are the natural consequence of this state of things, and therefore of the pressing necessity that legislative measures should as soon as possible be adopted for the relief of those interests; and the Petitioners, being apprehensive that the House is about to adjourn without having adopted any measures tending to an inquiry into the causes of those evils, and being at the same time satisfied that if such inquiry were to be instituted the result would be extensively beneficial, by laying open those causes, and bringing under the view of the House the means by which the Petitioners confidently believe that the existing evils may be alleviated and eventually removed; the Petitioners most earnestly entreat, That the House will be pleased to take this important subject into their most serious consideration, and that such inquiry may be instituted as shall put the House into full possession of the various causes which have operated with such lamentable effects, and thus enable the House to form a correct judgment of the measures which it may be expedient to adopt for the remedy thereof."

Mr. Grenfell

said, he could not see any practical end that was openly proposed by the petitioners, but he had reason to complain that they, having, as they seemed to think, a remedy in view for the distress of the country, allowed the House to sit for a month, and afterwards to determine on an adjournment, without coming forward. When he heard last night that a petition, purporting to come from the merchants and traders of London, had been put into the hands of an hon. member, he was very much surprised, as he had passed the greatest part of Wednesday and Thursday in the city in company of merchants and bankers, without once hearing of it. However he had made it his business to go into the city specially to inquire respecting the petition this day, and he had inquired of a great many merchants and bankers, but except two or three who had signed, and one who had been applied to to sign, no one had heard a word of it. He should begin with the person who had been applied to. This was a Russia merchant of the first eminence, and he had been applied to by a friend who begged him to go to a certain tavern, where this petition was lying, to sign it. He asked what was the object? "Oh," said the applicant, "it comes from the other end of the town—from lord Castlereagh. The hon. member for Shrewsbury had made (he said) a motion partly political and partly on the distress of the country, and lord Castlereagh had objected to it, but said that if an inquiry had been proposed merely into the distress of the country, it should have his support. The object was to present a petition solely directed to the latter purpose." His friend said, that if the petition came from lord Castlereagh, or any minister, he should have nothing to do with it—and he was right. He then applied to a gentleman who had signed it, a member of one of the greatest commercial houses in. this country, or in Europe. He had asked this gentleman what was the object of the petition, and why he signed it? He said he signed it to oblige a person who dealt with him, and because, though it was a milk and water thing, and though he knew not to what it tended, he did not see it could do any harm. From another person to whom he applied, and who had signed it, he received an answer saying, that he signed it at the request of a gentleman, who begged him to sign it at one or two o'clock, and told him that after three it would be too late; that he confessed it seemed to him ridiculous, but he also thought it harmless; but on farther consideration of what might be the object of it, he was sorry that he had signed it, and wished he could withdraw his name, particularly if it was founded on any reference to the circulating medium. He was aware that a petition was only to be taken as the petition of those who signed; it; but this would go forth, in some measure, as the petition of the merchants and traders of London. If the hon. gentle- man who brought forward the petition had confined himself to the question of the China trade, he should be disposed to agree with him; but at the end of the hon. gentleman's catalogue the "murder was out;" the currency! the currency! was the source of all the evils of the country! He believed this petition proceeded from a party, who had been cramped in their speculations in the funds, or in their over-trading, which was a species of gambling, by the measures for restoring the currency to a sound state. They had also been aware that they had lost in public confidence by the opinions of other men having been adopted by the general opinion of the country, and they were now endeavouring to excite an alarm, and to induce parliament to return to a system that had half ruined the country.

Mr. Irving

said, he had had no intercourse with the petitioners, but had been only requested by them to present the petition to the House. But he saw names affixed to it as respectable as that of the hon. member himself. The majority was composed of the most respectable names in the commercial world—and if small in number it contained a body of wealth and consideration which demanded attention from that House. They called for no specific enactments, and he, in mentioning some considerations that occurred to himself, had expressly stated that he was not instructed to state them, but that they were entirely suggestions of his own. As to the resumption of cash payments, he confessed, that however much he had differed from others, not as to the result, but as to the means to be taken to insure it, he should now be most unwilling to disturb the existing enactments; because, chiefly, the country had already suffered a great part of the inconveniencies which could result from that measure. By the advocates of the law that end was to be reached by privation, which he had conceived might be attained by a course of prosperity. He would say, it was his most deliberate conviction, that a great part of the evils which afflicted all classes in the country, had been owing to the measures taken respecting the currency; and though the subject had not been the study of his life, he would, if the question came again to be discussed, not be afraid to meet either the hon. gentleman, or any of his disciples in argument; and he felt, that in opposing the hon. gentleman, he should be supported by the opinion of the country. With respect to the private letter and personal communications with some who had signed, and with others who had declined to sign this petition, to which the hon. member had thought proper to refer, with a view to cast reflections upon the character of the petition, he must say, that some reproof was due to those from whom such letters and communications came. He had, he felt, said quite enough to prevent any undue impression from being made upon the House by the representations of the hon. member, or by that ridicule or levity which he had thought proper to introduce upon this subject. But he could not help adding, that the hon. member's levity was extremely misplaced on this occasion. A question indeed, involving the consideration of the mercantile and manufacturing interests of the country, was of too grave and important a nature to be mixed with any thing like levity. But there were many observations addressed to the House, by the hon. member, upon this occasion, which, however much he differed from him, and especially upon the bullion question, he by no means expected from him. With respect to the object of the petition, he trusted that ministers would feel the propriety of taking that object into their consideration, and founding some measure upon it; but if not, he hoped that House itself would, immediately after the recess, institute a thorough investigation upon the points to which the petitioners sought to draw its attention.

Mr. J. Smith

regretted that the hon. gentleman had not withheld the reflections in which he had indulged on the petition. The gentleman with whom the petition, originated, was a merchant of the first eminence and respectability, both for wealth, talents, and personal character: from the nature of his mercantile connexions, he could not enter into plans of speculation; but, at the same time, were he disposed to speculate, none had better means of doing so, on the score of wealth and credit. He could assure the' House, that the petition had no connection whatever with the noble lord (Castlereagh), any more than with a person in another world; and he had reason to believe that the noble lord had not even heard of it till last night. This gentleman had called on him (Mr. S.) to ask his opinion on the propriety of such a petition; and he confessed that he had ap- proved of it. In the conversation which took place, that gentleman did not say any thing that could warrant the remarks which had been read by the hon. gentleman. The bullion question, in particular, had not been mentioned at all. They had talked of the great distress of the manufacturing classes, of the two motions for inquiry into that subject, and of the grounds upon which ministers had opposed those motions. The motion of the hon. member for Shrewsbury had been opposed, because it blended the consideration of other political questions with the inquiry: and that of the hon. member for Southampton was opposed, chiefly because it was founded on the plan of a gentleman (Mr. Owen) who held opinions on certain subjects different from those of other persons, although, perhaps, it would have been well, if that gentleman's opinions on some subjects, particularly on education, had been attended to; It was, therefore, inferred, that if a proposition for inquiry, free from the grounds of objection which had been urged against both the former motions were submitted to parliament, ministers it was likely would accede to it. But as to the gentleman with whom the petition originated, he had no connexion whatever with ministers; but, on the contrary, entertained, he believed, political opinions of an opposite nature; and so far from his having any view to the bullion question, he knew him to be the firmest friend to the plan for the resumption of cash payments. The gentleman of whom he was speaking, did accordingly draw up the excellent and moderate petition which had been read to the House. As far as concerned his hon. friend who had spoken last, and who had spoken so well, he could vouch for the fact, that he knew nothing of the petition till he was requested to present it. He had himself been applied to on the subject of presenting it, and had thought that his hon. friend, the member for Taunton, would be the most proper person, but it was ascertained that he was not in town. He had then suggested his hon. friend on his right (Mr. Ellice) but he had declined it. It then appeared to him that his hon. friend would be the fittest person, he being one of the most eminent merchants in the kingdom, and one whose opinions were likely to have the greatest weight, if the hon. gentleman had known the time allowed for obtaining signatures, instead of remarking on the smallness of the number, he would have been inclined to express his surprise, that so many names should have been affixed to it in. so short a time. He hoped the House would receive the petition, and take the subject into consideration at as early a period as possible after the recess. If the prayer of this petition were attended to, it would at least give a ray of hope to the suffering part of the community.

Mr. Ricardo

was happy to hear it stated by all the hon. gentlemen who had spoken, that the laws enacted last year concerning the currency of the country, ought not to be disturbed. The country was, unquestionably, in a state of great distress, but he differed in opinion from his hon. friend who presented the petition as to the cause of that distress. His hon. friend thought that this country was in a state of forced currency, and that the evils both at home and abroad arose from the regulations which that House had made relative to the currency. That cause, however, he was convinced, was totally inadequate to produce such an effect, and therefore the evil must be traced to other sources. He might here remark, that his hon. friend had brought an unexpected accusation against him, namely, that he had proposed a plan for the regulation of the currency, but that he had not the merit of originality. Now, he did not think that he had ever claimed that merit, for he was aware that many persons before his time had taken a similar view of the subject, and he hoped that whatever might be the merit of the application which he had made of principles known to others, he had stated his opinions with becoming modesty. He conceived that the distress was chiefly to be ascribed to the inadequacy of the capital of the nation to carry on the operations of trade, manufacture, and commerce. But why was the capital more inadequate now than formerly? If the profits on capital were higher, and labour more productive in other countries, it could not be doubted that capital would be transferred to those countries: no proposition in Euclid was clearer than this. Now, he thought they had greatly aggravated this evil by bad legislation, and he had formerly mentioned instances. He had referred to the corn-laws as one example; and however unpopular the doctrine might be with some gentlemen, he would state his opinion freely, that he believed the corn-laws to have materially increased the evil, These laws had tended to raise the price or" sustenance, and that had raised the price of labour, which of course diminished the profit on capital. But of all this evil, the national debt, and the consequent amount of taxation, was the great cause. Hence the main object of the legislature should be to provide for the payment of that debt, and that provision should commence its operation as soon as possible. For as this debt was chargeable upon all the capital of the country, it was obvious that any capital which went out of the country was exonerated from that charge, while the capital which remained was of course compelled to pay a greater proportion of debt and taxes. To guard against this evil, which was productive at once of individual injustice and national injury, the whole capital of the country ought to be assessed for the discharge of the public debt, so that no more capital should be allowed to go out of the country without paying its fair proportion of that debt. The execution of tin's plan might he attended with difficulty, but then the importance of the object was worthy of an experiment to overcome every possible difficulty. The whole of the plan through which he proposed the payment of the public debt, might in his view be carried into effect within four or five years. For the discharge of the public debt, he proposed that checks should be issued upon the government to each purchaser, which checks should be kept distinct from the ordinary circulating medium of the country, but should be received by the government in payment of taxes. Thus the debt might be gradually liquidated while the government continued gradually receiving the assessments upon capital to provide for that liquidation. He would not, however, dwell farther upon this chimerical project, as he understood it was considered by every one except himself, but proceed to the consideration of the petition, his hon. friend proposed, as particularly worthy of attention, that a committee of that House should inquire into certain restrictions upon commerce, with a view to their removal. But his hon. friend should reflect, that no immediate effect could be reasonably expected from the labour of such a committee for such a purpose, as the restrictions alluded to, however burthen-some, could not be suddenly removed. This removal must, indeed, take place by slow degrees, entwined as they were with the general system of the trade of the country. But still great good might be expected from the investigations of such a committee, who would, he hoped, enter particularly into the consideration of the corn laws. His hon. friend had suggested that a certain modification should take place in the arrangements made towards the removal of the restrictions upon the Bank, namely, that the Bank should not be called upon to pay in bullion until the period arrived for such payment at the lowest rate. Now he, on the contrary, thought that it would be much more for the advantage of the Bank itself, to make the payments in the order already settled; because such payments being made gradually would serve to break the fall, and prepare the Bank for the complete resumption of metallic payments. The only modification, indeed, which he deemed desirable on this subject was, that the Bank should be called upon permanently to pay its notes in bullion, instead of coin; for he could not conceive the policy of incurring the expense of coining gold merely for the purpose of the currency, which could be answered as well, if not more conveniently, by paper. The only object to be provided for in this case was, that the real value of the paper should be equal to its denominative value, according to a settled and universal standard of value, or according to its nominal amount in coin. His hon. friend had recommended the establishment of two standards of value, namely, silver and gold; but this was a project, in his opinion, peculiarly objectionable, because, if there were two standards, there would be greater chance of variation, and the establishment of the least variable standard of value was the object to be desired, with a view to maintain the character of our currency.

Mr. Finlay

was an advocate for the object which the petition had in view, although he could not help thinking the question proposed for inquiry extremely complicated. It would perhaps be better to take one branch of this great question at a time than to enter into the whole of it at once. The freedom of trade was, no doubt, a sound principle in theory, but gentlemen were not generally aware of the difficulties which presented themselves, when an attempt was made to carry that principle into practice. The distress of the country, at present, he attributed to over speculation, over importation, and over manufac- ture. He differed, therefore, from the hon. member for Portarlington, who considered that distress as the fruit of excessive taxation, the corn laws, and high wages, which, according to that hon. member, disqualified this country from selling our manufactures as cheap as other countries, where the taxation and wages were comparatively less. But how did the fact stand? Why, that in the cotton trade, the manufacturers of which were the most distressed at present, we were enabled to undersell all the foreign manufacturers in their own market. What, then, became of the hon. gentlemen's theory as to taxation and low wages, and their effects? The people engaged in manufactures were no doubt suffering hardships, which every good man must deplore. But while they suffered from low wages, and especially in Scotland, it was to be recollected, that their wages were better than the same class of manufacturers received in Germany and America; for the distress of trade was universal, and this formed the aggravation of our distress. The hon. member expressed his persuasion that ministers were disposed to do every thing in their power for the alleviation of the public calamity.

Mr. W. Douglas

thought inquiry most imperiously called for; for unless the grievances of the people were considered, and their distress relieved, no hope could be entertained of permanent tranquillity. When the people were in distress, and discontented in 1812, coercive measures were adopted, but no steps were taken to relieve distress or remove the cause of discontent. Upon the recurrence of distress and disaffection in 1816 and 1817, coercive measures alone were again resorted to; and now, in 1819, the same course was to be followed. But after such recent experience, was it wise to persevere in such a system?

Mr. Brougham

regretted the harsh expressions towards the petitioners which had fallen from his. hon. friend the member for Marlow. Was it no disrespect to eighty of the most considerable merchants of London to say that they belonged to the anti-bullion party, and were influenced by such feelings alone in their application to that House? Had his hon. friend, before he gave vent to such observations, allowed himself to have perused the names appended to that petition, he would have checked himself, and not charged some of the greatest capitalists in the metropolis with being of a description of persons who had overtraded without the possession of any capital. It was plain indeed that his hon. friend's extraordinary zeal on bullion and Bank questions had, on the present, as on other occasions, led him too far. Had he, without even reading the petition, looked only to the signatures, he would have found in them a sufficient guarantee of their respectability—he would have found amongst them also some of the most respectable supporters of the bullion principle as any members in that House. He could mention the name of one, Mr. M'Caulay, who though not in general disposed to the views of Opposition, had, from the commencement, entertained the soundest views on that question. There were others of the petitioners who were formerly members of that House, who had been members of the very bullion committee. It would appear also, that the House of Commons was not the only House in which divisions existed, for he believed, that the hon. member for Marlow, if he had read the names, would have found that of his own brother affixed to it [hear, and no!]; if not his own brother, at least a very near connexion. But it was said, why delay the presentation of the petition to this day, when the House was so near to the adjournment? There was this good reason, this natural solution of the delay—that the petitioners waited under the hope that parliament would have done something to meet existing difficulties, without their intervention. He agreed with them that the attention of parliament ought to be speedily directed to the question, and having said so, he took the present opportunity of stating in answer to applications made to him as well by hon. members of that House, as by other gentlemen out of it, to know whether it was his intention to submit any motion on the commercial distresses, that he had no such intention. He was induced to that decision from the result of his exertions three years ago, when his proposition was met by a motion to read the other orders of the day. Besides, it was his conviction, that any proposition for such a change in the commercial interests of the country, as was suited to the altered state of our political relations with other nations, could be attended with no beneficial effect, if undertaken by any person not connected with the administration. It required the government to bend its whole attention to the subject. They had better means than any individual member could have of acquiring the fullest information on the subject. They ought to undertake it, on their constitutional responsibility. To carry to its accomplishment such an investigation—to decide amidst the conflicting interests which beset it in every stage of its progress, demanded a strong and efficient government. He agreed with his hon. friend (Mr. Ricardo), that nothing would be more fatal than any interference with the system adopted last session relative to cash payments. Any thing calculated to favour any cry against that arrangement, would inevitably increase the mischief. It was to be recollected, that those persons who most urgently pressed its adoption, had never shut their eyes to the fact, that some embarrassment must attend the change from the one system to the other. He agreed with him also, in the conviction, that the desired alteration in our commercial relations could not be the work of a day, from the nature of the interests opposed to each other; it was necessary, then, that the change should operate over a space of time. There was however one point on which he had wished so great an oracle, as he must ever consider him on such subjects, had not pronounced the decided opinion he had. He alluded to the possibility, or, if possible, the adviseableness of paying off the national debt. The proposition was not a new one—it had been years ago suggested by Mr. Hutchinson, indeed, he believed every chancellor of the exchequer had a similar proposition made to him every year. It had in more recent times been brought before the public by Dr. Watson, bishop of Landaff and, with the highest respect for the talents of that meritorious individual, he could not consider that production as the most favourable specimen. The effect of such a measure would be to place the property for five years at the mercy of all the solicitors, conveyancers, and moneys hunters, in the country.

Lord Castlreagh

agreed in every thing that had been said relative to the respectability of the petitioners, but he could not allow that House to separate under an impression, that the commercial interests of the country were overlooked or forgotten by the ministers of the Crown. With them it was an object of great solicitude. If any practical view opened on the minds, either of the petitioners or of the hon. gentleman who presented it, his right hon. friend at the head of the board of trade would, he had no doubt, be most anxious to receive the communication. With respect to the reference made to the great question which employed the attention of parliament last session, he, who had during that discussion been fully aware of the pressure of the remedy, agreed with the learned member, that every principle of practical wisdom and state policy required that not a doubt should be suffered to exist as to the arrangement being carried into effect.

Mr. Ellice

heard with regret from the noble lord, that in place of the government on its own responsibility taking-up the inquiry into the public distress, for the purpose of providing that relief, which must be applied, and quickly, the noble lord had left it to the proposition of individual members of that House. As to what had been stated by the hon. member who denied the effect of taxation on the manufacturing distresses, he differed from him most decidedly. If some arrangement was not effected before the period for the bullion payments arrived, under such a system of taxation, he feared an alarming crisis was near.

Mr. Alderman Heygate

said, he imputed the distresses to the great diminution of the currency, which had been for a long time gradually going on. When nine millions had been withdrawn from the circulation, great mischief and distress must have been the result. He believed much of the confusion had already taken place, and from what he heard from various parts, confidence was reviving. Let government but state the extent to which the diminution of the circulation should go, and the distress, the effect of uncertainty and want of confidence, would quickly disappear.

The petition was ordered to be printed.