HC Deb 06 March 1826 vol 14 cc1113-9
Mr. Hume

presented a Petition from the weavers of Pollock-shaws, praying for an alteration of the Corn-laws. The hon. member observed, that while the wages of weavers were 5s. a week, and even little or no work to be had at that price, it was monstrous to continue the present system of the Corn-laws. Of all taxes the people paid, the Corn-laws were the worst. It was a bread tax, by which a limited class, the cultivators of the soil, were alone said to be benefitted. He, however, contended that they were not benefitted. Every class would equally share the advantages of the cheapness of that necessary of life.

Mr. Benett

said, that if it was not for the Corn-laws, he would be glad to know how the nation could pay the interest of the debt, the poor-laws, the taxes, or any other of the great public burthens. If no laws protected the grower of corn, he apprehended they would find some difficulty in finding a market for their manufactures. The agricultural interest formed the bank upon which they drew for every burthen imposed upon the people. If they got rid of those laws which supported that class, they might get, rid, at the same time, of the national debt, and every other tax which pressed upon the country.

Sir R. Wilson

, in presenting a petition from the ladies shoemakers of Westminster, against the Corn laws, observed, that he liked to hear the subject discussed in that House, because these discussions were a means both of disseminating information and removing prejudice. At the same time, he considered all language of asperity or reproach towards the landlords, as highly reprehensible; for he believed the landlords of England to be as generous and benevolent a class of men as any other in the kingdom. There were some of them who considered, however, any attempt to approach the Corn-laws, as almost equal to the opening of Pandora's box, from the ills which were to be spread by that event over the country. The hon. member for Wiltshire considered any interference with the Corn-laws as likely to put an end to all payments of the national debt, or the other obligations of the country. He had no such apprehensions; but when he saw corn as high as it was during the war, and the wages of manufacturers, which were then 20s. or 30s. a week, now reduced to 4s. or 5s., with bread at two-pence or two-pence half-penny per lb., he thought it was high time to apply some remedy to the evil under which those classes were suffering. He did not object to the landlord or his tenant having a fair remunerating price; but when he said fair, he meant a relatively fair price, in the present fictitious state of the country, If the landlords, instead of preserving rents at the high rate they bad been during the war were to lower them, and permit a free trade in corn, as well as in other produce the whole community would be benefited. He wished to see the manufacturing classes have a rate of wages sufficient for their subsistence; and as one who voted for free trade, with the understanding that a change in the Corn-laws was to form a portion of the system, he now called upon all who had so voted to give their vote for a change in the Corn-laws.

Mr. Calcraft

the petition was from the boot and shoemakers. Now, of all those, who approached that House with a petition upon the subject, he considered them perhaps the least entitled to complain. It was notorious that a gentleman could not purchase a pair of boots and spurs under the price which he procured for a quarter of his best wheat. As long as the manufacturers continued to demand such prices, their profits must be as large or larger then the corn-grower's; and they could therefore afford to pay the price. They could not have corn cheap, and the other articles of life relatively dear. His hon. friend had talked of bread as being very high in price; there was no analogy between the price of bread and corn. Whether it, was the miller or the baker, he knew not; but the price of corn was very different from the price of bread. He would fee willing to apply the principles of free trade to corn, as well as to every other, article; but in the present sophisticated of the country, they could only approach to the principles of that trade.

Sir M. W. Ridley

wished to know who were those lucky landlords from whose rent-rolls their rents had not been reduced. He could assure the petitioners, that if the Promissory-Note bill passed, it would not be long before the price of corn was as low as they could wish; and then they would find wages decrease also. He was sorry to see that gentlemen could not present petitions without, by a sort of side-wind, throwing out unjust and illiberal imputations upon the landlords.

Colonel Davies

said, that if the country gentlemen would oppose the enormous estimates which were presented to the House take place, which would render the bur- then of the Corn-laws so much lighter, that they would not be felt; but while he saw them day after day, supporting the extravagant expenditure of ministers, he was neither surprised nor sorry to hear the Corn-laws complained of.

Mr. N. Calvert

was desirous that the Corn-laws should be revised, but objected to any alteration which would deprive the landed proprietor of a fair remuneration.

Sir E. Knatchbull

most positively denied the assertion, that rents had not been reduced. He also wished to state that the price of corn, instead of being 60s. was 58s. He did not think that any alteration in the Corn-laws would be beneficial or justifiable at this time. Much delusion prevailed upon this subject; which, he trusted, would be corrected by the discussions in that House.

Mr. T. Wilson

was disposed to extend every fair protection to the agricultural interest; but he must say, that the manufacturing and mercantile interests, from the changes which had been introduced into our commercial policy, had some claims upon the agricultural interests.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he thought that much error and much prejudice prevailed upon the subject on which a discussion had now arisen. Perhaps it would be better that such a discussion should take place when the question was brought fairly before the House, than to have it introduced in the present irregular way, on the presentation of a petition, as many hon. gentlemen representing the landed interest, whose opinions were upon this subject the most important, might feel it irksome, without some previous intimation, to deliver their sentiments. This was a natural feeling for those to entertain who were not in the habit of frequently expressing their opinions in that House. Much delusion, in his opinion, prevailed upon this subject, and he was, therefore, desirous that it should come fully and fairly before the House, with a view of dissipating that delusion. As to the particular distress of shoemakers, or of any other class of persons, it was a thing certainly to be regretted that distress existed amongst them; but that distress, whatever they might think, was quite disconnected with the present question. The distressed situation of the labouring classes was governed by principles totally distinct from those upon which the question of the Corn-laws de-pended. The working classes laboured under a mistake When they raised the cry for cheap bread. It was certainly Very natural for them to do so in their distressed state; but what he complained of was, that gentlemen who ought to be much better informed, should encourage the delusion under which those persons laboured, in supposing that, with cheaper bread, they would still have the same rate of Wages as they now received. The manufacturers, who expressed so much compassion for the state of their workmen, in the next breath stated, that they expected to derive a benefit from a reduction of the rate of wages, in consequence of a reduction of the price of corn. The manufacturers expected that a reduction of the rate of wages would be beneficial to them in this way—that it would enable them to come into the market with the foreign manufacturers on fairer terms than at present. On that point, also, he believed that the manufacturers would find themselves totally mistaken. But what, then, became of their compassion for their unfortunate workmen? He really believed, that when the subject came to be fairly and properly discussed, delusion and misrepresentation would be found at the bottom of all the statements which were put forth respecting the operation of the Corn-laws upon the working classes. It was to be lamented, that any class of persons in this country, or in any part of the king's dominions, should be unable to maintain themselves in comfort by the exercise of their honest industry; but it was not fair to charge such a state of things upon the Corn-laws, for the purpose of enlisting the feelings of sympathy against that system. Every man in that House must wish that his poorer countrymen were well off, comfortable, and happy—that every one of them had a fowl to put in his pot, not on a Sunday alone, but every day in the week. But if that object could not be obtained, and if a distress which they all deplored prevailed, it was idle and mischievous to hope, or to attempt to remedy it, by setting one part of the community in opposition to another, and creating an animosity between the manufacturing and agricultural interests. Those interests would both flourish best when they were most united. It was impossible that the landed interest should be poor, and the other interests of the country great and flourishing. This it was an easy matter to prove, and he trusted that much light would be thrown upon the subject in the forthcoming discussions, to refute the erroneous notion Which same entertained, that the advancement of one interest was at variance with the support of another. In the mean time, he deprecated the attempt that was made, by partial and unjust representations, and by irregular discussion, to perpetuate those errors, and to foment prejudices in this public mind against the landlords. He knew the character of that particular body, of which he had himself the good fortune to be a member, and he would not hesitate to say, that throughout Europe, throughout the world, and even in that portion of the new world which We were disposed to regard with a favourable eye, on account of its liberal institutions, there was not a Set of men to be found who could be compared with the landed proprietors of England, for the Exercise of all the virtues—and most important ones they were—connected with their situation [cheers]. When the question came to be discussed, he should be prepared to support the propriety of a free trade in corn—not because he thought the measure would depress the landed interest—he believed it would have no such effect; if he thought that it would, he would adopt a different line of conduct, for he held it to be necessary that the landed interest, which was the foundation and support of all the other interests of the country, should, if need be, be up-held. He would support a free trade in corn, because he was friendly to the principle of free trade on all subjects of commercial policy: and, if he regretted any thing at the present time, it Was that that part of his majesty's government, Who advocated the principles of free trade, had not been able to carry their liberal principles to such an extent as was to be desired. He was for a free trade, not only in corn, but in every other commodity; and, in the first place, he was desirous to see a free communication established between every part of his majesty's dominions. When the time should arrive, he would endeavour to show that the landed interest were in error, in supposing that they would suffer any injury from a free trade in corn, as the commercial interest were in supposing that they could be in a flourishing condition while the landed interest was depressed. He hoped they would be prepared to give up the protecting duties, and that when a particular trade was thrown open, they would not overwhelm ministers by complaints of the distress it occasioned them. With reference to the discussion the other night as to the silk trade, what he complained of was, that the right hon. gentleman at the head of the Board of Trade, did not carry the principle into effect. The right hon. gentleman had proved, as clear as day-light, that he could afford no more protection than a duty of 30 per cent; that by giving more, he would in fact, be giving less, because he would be letting in the smuggler, and subjecting the trade to all the inconveniencies which were before attendant upon it. A protecting duty of any kind ought to be allowed with great caution; for it had the effect of obliging the consumer to buy an inferior article, at a price beyond its real value, besides its injurious effects upon the judicious employment of capital. If the trade were worth embarking in, it ought to be open to competition, and not be fettered with a protecting duty; and if it were not, it would be better that the capital of the country should be laid out in some more profitable pursuit. He had a further objection to it. If the free principles were to be acted upon, it was expedient and wise to act upon them fully. When they changed the commercial policy of the country, they ought to have followed up the principles of that change entirely. It were better not to have entered upon the change at all, than, after having entered upon it, only to follow it up a little way. When they departed from a course which they had long followed, they ought to depart from it altogether, and enter upon their, new line of policy, by acting in all things upon the principle by which it was recommended. It was for this reason that he was favourable to a free trade in corn as in every thing else; and he did not think that the landed interests had any real grounds to justify the apprehensions which they; entertained, from the trade in corn following the general rule of free trade adopted towards other articles.

Ordered to lie on the table.