HC Deb 07 February 1822 vol 6 cc96-101
Mr. Coke

rose to present a petition from the owners and occupiers of land in the county of Norfolk—a county in which n agriculture was carried on at less expense, and more corn was grown on poor land, than in any other part of the kingdom. He was sorry to say that the state of that county, in consequence of the depression of the agricultural interest, was of the most heart-breaking description; and to no man did that circumstance give more pain than to himself, who had spent the greater part of his life in endeavouring to improve its condition. It was dreadful to behold the distress and alarm which pervaded every part of the county. The requisition calling upon the sheriff to convene the meeting, at which the petition which he held in his hand was agreed to, was signed only by the yeomanry; and a more respectable body of men did not exist. He was inclined to believe that three out of every five who had signed the requisition were persons who had formerly been the supporters of government. Those persons were now convinced of their error—perhaps reluctantly; but distress had had a share in bringing them to their present state of mind. The county of Norfolk, he was proud to say, was the first to set the example of petitioning parliament—an example which he trusted would be followed by other counties, until they had all brought their complaints before the legislature. He hoped to hear the public voice resound on this subject from all quarters of the country. Unless there should be an union of both whigs and tories, unless the country gentlemen on both sides of the House should combine their efforts, the total destruction of the agricultural interest must ensue. The petition prayed for economy and reform. It described the distress which existed; and declared that taxation, overwhelming and all-devouring taxation, was the cause of that distress. The petition prayed for the reduction of taxes, and particularly of those which were imposed on malt, salt, leather, candles and other necessary articles of consumption, which would afford the country relief to the amount of five millions, without any real injury to the revenue. How astonished must the country be to hear the declaration of the chancellor of the exchequer, that the removal of any tax would be an aggravation of the existing distress! Gracious God! At a time when the people, from one end of the country to the other, were complaining of distress, were they to be told by a hard-hearted and callous government, on the first day of the session too, that they were to meet with no relief, and that their complaints would be disregarded? He did not suppose that the petitions of the people would be attended to by that House; but he certainly did not expect to hear that doctrine so openly avowed. There had been persons who looked up to that House as a land of hope, corrupt as it was, profligate as it was—[cries of "Order."]

The Speaker

said, he was sure that a moment's reflection would convince the hon. member that he had transgressed the limits of fair debate.

Mr. Coke

apologized for having said what was considered improper. He knew that he was warm, and it was natural that he should be so. It was understood, however, that the people were not likely to obtain redress from that House. The petition would perhaps better explain the view which he entertained with regard to the constitution of that House, than he could himself. It stated that retrenchment would do much towards the relief of all classes of the community; and he must remind them, that although an hon. member had shown last session that there was no branch of the expenditure, either foreign or domestic, in which reduction might not be made, yet large majorities had always been found to reject his propositions. "Therefore," said the petitioners, "it is our decided conviction, that the corrupt and defective state of the representation is the true source of the prevailing distress, and that until the people shall be fairly represented in parliament, no relief is to be expected." The hon. member for Kent had indeed told the House, in pretty plain terms, the other evening, that no measure could succeed in that House, which did not originate with ministers—a circumstance which did not surprise him, when be reflected on the number of persons who held situations of profit and emolument like that hon. member.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, that after the pointed allusion which the hon. member had made to him, and the reproof to which he had been subjected, he felt it, his duty to explain what he conceived to be a very considerable misrepresentation of what he had said on a former evening, and to deny in toto the unfounded charge which the hon. member had thought fit to bring against him. The hon. member had alluded to what he described as the gains and profits of his public situation. He felt himself called upon to answer this allusion in the name of the county which he represented. If what was stated by the hon. member were true, that county would not have returned him to parliament as its representative. With respect to what had fallen from him on a former night, he thought he could offer an explanation, from the truth of which no man of candour would dissent. If he had said any thing from which it could be inferred that he questioned the right of the House to adopt any measure which it thought proper, he should indeed be unworthy of a seat in it; but in fact he had only stated that which had been a common observation with gentlemen on the other side. He had said, with respect to the particular question before the House at that time, that it would be for the best interest of the country, that the measure should be first propounded by government; and if it should appear not to be of a character likely to attain the desired end, then would be the time for gentlemen on the other side to suggest what they might think proper. He had not been properly treated by hon. gentlemen on the other side. One learned member (Mr. Brougham) had replied with considerable warmth to the observations which he had felt it, his duty to make. He was willing to pay that deference to the learned gentleman which his commanding talents entitled him to, and would not meet his reproof with an angry feeling; but if he, or any other hon. member, could, by making a personal attack upon him, think to deter him from pursuing the line of conduct which his duty required, he had formed a very erroneous estimate of his character. He had formerly expressed the opinion, which he would now repeat, that it would be but fair to leave ministers at liberty to bring forward their measures, without being anticipated by any ill-judged project, proceeding from any other quarter. The hon. member for Norfolk might be assured that he would not allow any angry feeling to prevent him from co-operating with him in endeavouring to obtain relief for the agricultural interest. They were agreed upon the extent of the distress which pressed upon agriculture. He would vote with the hon. member, in support of any measure calculated to produce that relief to the agricultural interest of which it stood so much in need; but he must be allowed to say, that the mixing up of other considerations with the great question only tended to injure the cause.

Mr. Brougham

said, he need not remind the House that it was as fitting for him to make the observations which he had made upon the hon. member's speech, as it was within the scope of the hon. member's duty to make that speech. He had as perfect a right to state his unbiassed sentiments upon the public conduct of the hon. member, provided he made use of no misrepresentation, as the hon. member had to hold that conduct. If he misunderstood the hon. member, it was open to the hon. member to set him right by explanation. He could only say that he had heard the hon. member explain on a former evening, and had now heard his new explanation; and still thought that no man who had listened to the hon. member could say that he (Mr. B.) had not rightly understood, and rightly represented, his observations.

Mr. Wodehouse

said, that the distress under which the agricultural interest in the county of Norfolk laboured was greater than at any former period. The petition prayed, and very properly, that reductions might take place, not only in the military and naval departments, but in every branch of the public expenditure. The petition called for a reduction of the civil list, and, in his opinion, such reduction ought to take place immediately. He did not expect that any great saving would be effected by the reductions which might be made, but such measure would conciliate the country, and this was an important object. The hon. member particularly urged the necessity of repealing the tax on malt. The petition concluded with a prayer for the reform of parliament. He confessed he did not know what was the nature of the reform that was asked for. Before he could give an opinion on the question, he must wait till it came before the House in a definite shape. His hon. colleague was in the habit of saying, that he never deceived his constituents. He did not know whether his hon. colleague meant to insinuate that others had not acted so uprightly as himself; but he thought his hon. colleague ought, in common manliness, to name the individual or individuals at whom he pointed.

Mr. Lockhart

contended, that some speedy measures of relief must be adopted to prevent the total ruin of the agricultural interest. It was said by some persons, that public credit and the agricultural interest must stand or fall together—that the stockholder and the agriculturists must go hand in hand. But, how did they go hand in hand? The rentals of the kingdom had been reduced from fifty-one millions, to ten millions, whilst the public creditor still received the same amount of interest as formerly. He did not attribute any callosity of heart to ministers; but he believed their judgment was not sound. They contended that the maintenance of public credit would, of itself, afford relief to the agriculturist. He believed the converse of that proposition to be true. He implored the House to con- sider the way in which the public peace might be affected, if the distress in which the agricultural interest was plunged were not removed. Might not the scenes which were now acting in Ireland occur here? Already, in the west and midland counties, the farmers were unable to pay their rents; and the time would soon arrive, when they would not possess the means of paying their labourers. Then the consequences would be alarming. Some remedy might be found for the prevailing distress in economy and retrenchment, as well as by guarding against the too great importation of corn.

Mr. Lushington

said, that his right hon. friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had not, as had been represented, been so callous or hard-hearted as to declare against the reduction of any taxes. What his right hon. friend had contended was, that the maintenance of public credit was the best means of reducing the burdens which pressed upon the country, and that a sweeping reduction of taxes, which would put public credit in jeopardy, must have a bad effect upon the general interests of the community. With respect to the question before the House, he thought the most reasonable course to pursue was, to wait to hear what retrenchment government intended to make before any measure was proposed similar to that brought forward by the hon. member for Aberdeen, which must have the effect of injuring public credit.

Mr. Hume

was sure the hon. gentleman could not have read the amendment which he had felt it his duty to submit to the House. It did not propose to reduce taxation so as to endanger the public credit. Indeed, he had already disclaimed any such intention. The amendment simply proposed, that reduction should not be confined to one or two, but should extend itself to all departments. He had certainly understood the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say, "Do not reduce taxation, for that will aggravate the burdens of the country." He was happy, however to receive the explanation which ministers had thought proper to give, after eight and forty hours deliberation; though he believed that the declaration of his right hon. friend (Mr. Tierney), that ministers, whatever they might say, would be compelled to reduce the taxes, had conduced to bring it about.

Ordered to lie on the table.