§ Mr. Canning moved the order of the day, for the House resolving itself into a committee on the act of 3 Geo. 4, c. 60.
Sir T. Lethbridge
assured the House, that he retained the entire opposition which he had, on a former evening, stated to the measure. He would not, however, object to the Speaker's leaving the chair, because he was desirous of hearing, from the mouths of ministers, 918 an explanation of the principles on which their proposition was to be supported. He would, therefore, reserve his observations until the House was in committee.
§ The House having resolved itself into a committee,
Mr. Secretary Canning
rose and said.— Although, Sir, it would have been very unusual to offer any opposition to your taking the chair for the purpose of resuming the consideration of a subject in committee, in the same form to which the House had already consented, yet I feel bound to offer my thanks for the courtesy of the hon. baronet and those who act with him, in allowing us at once to enter into an examination of the question, in a manner more convenient and satisfactory than we otherwise could have done, had they persisted in the opposition which they threatened. Before, however, I proceed to an explanation of that resolution which I am about to propose, I will take leave, with the permission of the House, to clear away some general objections to which the whole of the measures have been subjected—objections which, although they might not, if left unanswered, prejudice the principle of these measures, yet might, nevertheless, excite some prejudice against them, by throwing blame on those whose duty it was to propose them. I am further anxious to say a few words on that subject, because it is my earnest desire to free my right hon. colleagues and myself from any thing like a breach of faith, such as has been more than once attempted to be cast upon us, in the course of these proceedings. Most undoubtedly, I did, on the first day of the present session, make a declaration, which I am equally ready to admit I have renewed since, that I was of opinion the present was not a convenient season to enter into a consideration of the Corn-trade, with a view of making any alteration in the laws which affected it. That opinion I have proclaimed more than once. Upon that opinion I have, throughout the whole course of this session, acted; and I now declare, without hesitation, that it still remains unchanged. And still more, that if any one will consider these resolutions with a fair and unprejudiced judgment, they will find that they are characterised by a strict conformity with such an opinion, and art solely intended to enable his majesty's ministers and this House, without incon- 919 venience, to postpone any consideration of those laws, until another session. I am quite ready to admit, that if any thing had been done by us to prejudice the question of those laws, after the declarations we have made to the House, it would be, and deserves to be, considered a breach of faith upon our part. I confess, after the professions and opinions to which we have given utterance, that it is our duty to remove any impressions which have arisen from such an accident, and to conciliate, to the utmost of our power, the prejudices which may have been excited by it; but I not only believe most sincerely that this measure is calculated to do away with any inconveniencies which might attend at this season a general discussion upon the subject of the corn-trade, but I am also of opinion, that so far from its being a breach of faith, it is a preservation of that faith; and, while it is calculated for the benefit of all classes, that it is, above all others, adapted to the preservation of the interests of that class whose rights are said to be more peculiarly affected. If, on the one hand, I am ready to acknowledge that any attempt upon our part to prejudice the general question would be unfair as regards the agriculturists, and unwise and improper as a measure of policy, I hope I do not ask too much, if I wish to ask credit to his majesty's government for a conscientious desire to do their duty to all classes, and to guide their counsels so as to preserve the interests of every portion of the community, whether commercial, manufacturing, or agricultural. In addition to the imputation of a breach of faith, there has been another charge brought against us, less serious I confess, but which I am still very anxious to refute—I mean a something which has been presumed pretty generally, of some sudden change in the councils of his majesty's ministers with respect to the Corn-laws, since that question was brought under the consideration of this House by the hon. member for Bridgenorth. There is, however, still a third charge, in addition to this inconsistency, which has been arrayed in argument against us since the commencement of this discussion. It is stated, that my right hon. friend the president of the Board of Trade, gave, in his place in this House, such an answer, in reply to a question from the hon. member for Shaftesbury, as led to the belief that the bonded corn would not be meddled 920 with this year. I do not presume to say that this account of that answer may not be perfectly correct, although I cannot speak from my own knowledge, not having been in my place at the time when it was given; but I say broadly, that if that answer was such as left the matter in doubt—if it was worded in general terms, and so as to avoid the possibility of being committed to any specific and decided course—then it was unfair to draw from that answer any such inference as I have used in argument against us on the present occasion. I would contend even, that the right hon. gentleman did what was perfectly right, and consistent with the practice of this House, in the manner in which he worded that reply. Nothing is more common than for a responsible minister of the Crown to evade a question either of the affirmative or the contrary by such expedients; and though I am quite certain that the hon. member for Shaftesbury is altogether blameless of any want of courtesy, either in seeking for that reply, or in allowing such inference to be drawn from it—and although I am equally certain he meant nothing more than to obtain information upon a subject which affected many general interests; yet surely he cannot be so innocent as not to see what consequences might result from such unguarded declarations. Would he consider it to be either politic or prudent, or at all consistent with the duty of a minister, at the head of the trade of this country, to give answers upon the subject of his intentions with regard to a particular commodity, which might have the effect of raising that article perhaps 50 per cent by the very next post. He would, I conceive, feel it to be perfectly justifiable for a minister, in such a situation, either not to answer at all, or to give such a reply as would avert consequences so injurious to those engaged in the particular trade to which the question might refer. Questions were put every day in that House, the bearings of which were perhaps very little, if at all, understood, either by those who put them, or by those who were called upon to answer them. I myself have been required to give replies, on various occasions, to questions, of which, perhaps, I saw the full consequences better afterwards than at the moment when I was called upon to speak; but I have no hesitation in saying, that had I not evaded them, or altogether refused a direct reply, 921 I might have affected the interests of individuals in a degree which might hardly be credited. By the effect of inadvertently saying "Aye," upon one of these occasions, I might have created a rise; in a certain species of property to the extent of full twenty per cent; and, perhaps, by a simple "No," I might have depredated it to a similar extent. I say, therefore, that questions upon such subjects cannot be fairly asked; and that, when asked, it would be difficult to give any other answer than an evasive one, if a minister would fulfil properly the duties incumbent upon his situation. If I regret any thing upon this occasion, it is, that my right hon. friend did not remain altogether silent; but of this I am perfectly sure, that there was nothing in that answer which he intended to leave open to the inference which had been drawn from it. I hope I have now cleared the question from some of those impediments, with regard to its proposers, which stood in the way of a free and impartial discussion of its own merits, and that the proposition will be allowed to stand upon its own grounds, unconnected with the private views or pledges of those who are called upon to submit it to the consideration of the House. While it remained involved by such opinions or prepossessions, I feel that it was not easy to prevent it from being mixed up with questions which gave it a very unfavourable colour, in the eyes of those who were called upon to decide upon it; but I trust that they will now link it upon it; and I contend they ought so to look upon it, as a question supported by its own merit, and justified by its accordance with the soundest principles of policy. I do not mean to say, that if I thought the principles upon which I call for an assent to this measure right, I would not be prepared to uphold it upon that right; but I have the satisfaction to say, that we have now something more than mere theoretical right to support us, and that we have even in the very short period which has elapsed since this question was agitated, gained the accession of some experience in defence of our principles. I hope it will not be considered an unfair inference, that if I show what we have already done, and the expectation of what we are about to do, to be producing great good, I may be allowed to anticipate still greater good from the consummation of our intentions. The account of what we proposed upon the 922 subject of the bonded corn reached Liverpool on Wednesday morning; and on this day there are letters in town, one of which has been put into my hand just before I came down to the House. It is not from any friend of mine, nor an acquaintance, nor a political supporter either of mine or of my right hon. friend who succeeded me in the honour of representing that city in this House; but, on the contrary, from a gentleman decidedly opposed to me in politics. I know him, however, to be a a man of high honour, unquestioned integrity, and possessing great estimation as a mercantile character in the city where he resides. In this letter, dated from Liverpool, an extract of which I shall take the liberty of reading to the House, he says, "there has been a slight improvement to-day in Manchester goods, but the moment it became known that it was the intention of ministers to introduce a measure for our relief, by removing the restrictions which kept the bonded corn out of the market, cotton could not be obtained at an advance of five per cent; and there seemed to be a very general restoration of confidence, arising from the feeling that government would do all in their power to relieve the sufferers." This was the language of one letter. Since I entered the House, however, I have received another, which is also not addressed to me, or to any friend of mine, and I believe the writer to be opposed to me in politics. I know, however, that he is a person of respectability. His letter, dated 3rd of May, runs thus:—"The account of what has been proposed by ministers has made us all alive, and led to a very general improvement in trade. Holders of cotton are all speculating upon a rise; and there are no sellers to day." Surely it could not be said, after this, that the measure recommended is not founded upon good principles; and, even if the practical effect may be in some measure over-rated, it must be a matter of congratulation to its proposers, and an encouragement to perseverance, when they see that the expectation of its effects is likely to produce a return of that confidence, without which the manufacturers cannot hope to be rescued from their present difficulties. I am quite prepared to admit that, because there is so much good anticipated from the first proposition —that of the admission of bonded corn— we are not therefore to infer that this is 923 an argument for the second proposition. The good of the first proposition is plain and immediate; that to be anticipated from the second is distant and depends on contingencies. The first proposition may stand alone upon its own grounds; but, although the second may rest upon a somewhat different foundation, it tends to the same principle. We are, Sir, with regard to the opposition to the second measure, driven to one of two propositions—either that the present Corn-laws are to remain the fixed and unaltered future laws of the country, or to declare at once that this is the time to alter them; a time of great distress—of unusual excitement—of extraordinary anxiety. If the latter course is to be followed, then we should be compelled to say, that our opinions are changed with respect to the time for altering the Corn-laws; but the contrary, as I said before, is the result of our reflections. My opinion with respect to the impropriety of that alteration has been confirmed; and the very circumstances which most recommended to me these temporary measures are, that they will enable us to dispense with that alteration of the laws which would prove at this moment highly inconvenient, and would lead to no beneficial result. I have never heard it asserted by any man, even the most strenuous opponent of these measures, that the Corn-laws should not undergo a revision: but I think that, at the present moment, such a revision would be a great misfortune; and I would declare that any man looked ill at our condition, who, complying with the pressure of the present times and circumstances, would persist to the full extent in going into that inquiry which some consider advisable. An hon. baronet has asked us, why we are to do any thing, or what circumstances have called upon us to make any distinction between the present time, and that period in which the hon. member for Bridge north brought forward his proposition to the House? I do not myself, as far as regards the question, see any difference either; but I will endeavour to explain why I consider that we are called upon to consent to this proposition. For three weeks before the hon. member for Bridgenorth made his motion, there had been a gradual inclination to a rise in price; for three weeks since there has been the same: so that for six weeks— with the exception, I believe, of the last few days, when we can mark a slight de- 924 cline—a constant tendency to rise has been visible in the corn market; and that rise has been accompanied by a state of terror and alarm; which, although I do not mean to make any prophecies of famine, indicates an approach to a state which no man can contemplate with satisfaction. The harvest of last year began a month earlier than usual, and the consumption of it began almost with the gathering in of the harvest. This year it may be a month later, and the people be obliged, in the absence of some measure like that now before the House, to subsist upon its produce for fourteen months instead of twelve. In ordinary cases, and under other circumstances, such an evil might, perhaps, be without difficulty averted; but, I ask whether there is nothing in the present state of the country to call for more than ordinary caution and prudence upon the part of his majesty's government? The very fact, that the country will be without a parliament for many months of the present year would be, in my opinion, alone sufficient to justify such caution. I repeat, however, that I do not by any means wish it to be understood that I am predicting misfortunes, which I am well aware may not, and which I hope and trust will not, occur. A fortnight of mild weather, and west wind, may insure us such a harvest as will render unnecessary all the precautions which we are now taking. I maintain, however, that it is as much the duty of government to provide against a possible as a probable contingency. It cannot have escaped the recollection of gentlemen, that, in the year 1816, the prospect of a favourable harvest was changed in the course of a single night, and that the promise of the Monday was totally blighted on the Wednesday. Was it upon that occasion objected to the government when they came down with a proposition caused by this change of circumstances, that they were guilty of vacillation and a dereliction of principle? I know that gentlemen on the other side have said, and will say, that it is time enough to apply the remedy when the evil is found to exist, and that a mild and mitigated harvest may put to flight all the fears which are now entertained. I admit the latter proposition; but I maintain that it is the duty of government to guard against even the possibility of evil, especially when it is agreed on all hands, that it would be inexpedient to have recourse 925 to the natural corrective which the operation of the present Corn-laws would afford. But it has been also objected by the opponents of the present measure, that it is unnecessary, because his majesty's ministers already possess the power of doing that which they call upon parliament to sanction. I am willing to grant that we do constitutionally possess that power, if we choose to exercise it, but I will ask hon. members to look back with me to the history of the last century, and say whether there is not one instance during that period, which may act as a warning, if not an example, to the ministers of the present day. In the year 1766, the great lord Chatham was at the head of the administration of this country, and with him lord Camden, the most popular lawyer this country ever saw, was associated. For a few months nothing could be more popular than their government. A change of circumstances, however, arrived; and, during a period of scarcity, they were induced to exercise the power, which has lately been stated in this House, especially by the hon. gentleman whom I see on the bench below me, as absolutely inherent in government; namely, to take measures suspensive of, and even infringing the law, in order to provide for the salus populi. These eminent men, relying in part on the greatness of their power, and in part on their popularity, took the illegal, but, as every body admitted, the justifiable measure, under the circumstances, of doing the converse of that which it is said we ought to do, if the necessity arises—I mean what was equivalent to stopping the exportation, as we should be called upon to permit the importation of grain. As the law then stood, grain could be exported from this country up to a certain price. Famine stared them in the face, and they laid an embargo, stopping the exported grain. When parliament met, the most violent debates ensued; and, what was singular, every man who spoke in those debates admitted the act was absolutely necessary to be done; yet, because they had done it precipitately, as it was said, and without a due regard to all the circumstances belonging to it, and without a sufficient sense of what they owed, in duty, to parliament—against these two popular ministers, the most stormy debates ensued, and the most violent attacks were made successfully in both Houses of parliament. If, then, in a case in some degree parallel, 926 such was the result—if those two ministers, so superior in talents and popularity to any of those who compose the present administration—became the objects of the most violent and successful attacks in both Houses—because, at a period when parliament was not sitting, they had taken upon themselves the responsibility of advising a measure which was, they considered, called for by the exigencies of the country—is it not a fair inference, to say that the exercise of a similar power upon the part of the present government would be visited with at least equal obloquy, and call down equal opposition? Is it not an equally fair inference, to say, that had the administration to which I allude been able to foresee the opposition by which their measure would be met, they would have waited for the meeting of parliament before they ventured to bring it forward? Will any man, then, say, that his majesty's ministers, with this example before their eyes, are to be blamed, because, foreseeing, or at least seeing, a probable cause for anticipating a case calling for an interference with the existing law, they consult parliament in the first instance, instead of waiting until the crisis comes, and then acting upon their own responsibility? "But," say the opponents of the measure, "you have no need to come to parliament for leave to do that which the constitution empowers you to do—you are the responsible advisers of the Crown, and as such, you have the power of carrying into effect the measure which you now propose." I ask, whether this plea availed lord Chatham or lord Camden, when placed in circumstances where their claim to indulgence was much greater than ours would be, if foreseeing, as we do, the possible occurrence of a situation calling for interference with the existing law, and having the power, which they had not, of consulting parliament in the first instance, we neglected to do so? Sir, what was recommended to us by several gentlemen, but more particularly by the hon. gentleman to whom I took the liberty of alluding, was, let things go on, let the necessity arise, then use the power with which you are intrusted, and then come to parliament for a bill of indemnity. If the circumstances came on by surprise, parliament not sitting, I would have done so, and I would have trusted to parliament for indemnity; but when I see the spirit in which we are catechised for mooting it even as a possibility that we 927 should have occasion to admit foreign corn, what earnest is that of the spirit in which we should be received if we had come afterwards for indemnity? Is it to be believed that the same gentlemen— who consider it as a sin against the landed interest that we conceive it possible the case may occur in which we should wish to act on that discretion—would, if we now acted on that discretion, without their previous knowledge and consent, have opened their arms to us with indemnity, when we came to render an account? Would not the first question asked by them in that case have been, "What! had you no apprehension? Was there no indication of danger? What! were six weeks of a rise in prices nothing?" If we had acted without taking that warning, or without mentioning the fact, can we believe that the same gentlemen who are now unwilling to grant that discretion, would then be so willing to allow that it was justly taken, and would not have thrown the six weeks of a rise in prices in our face? It is now, forsooth, nothing to the purpose, that there is want stalking about the manufacturing districts. But do you believe that if we had acted, and then come for an indemnity, we should not have been asked —"Were there no indications of the necessity?—Was there no discontent?—Were you quite ignorant that there was a small stock on hand? Had you no knowledge that the prices of grain had been gradually looking up for some time? Was there no danger to be apprehended from famine acting upon an excited and disaffected population?" I ask, Sir, if there would not have been no language of this kind, and if we should not have had to encounter still greater opposition than that which bore down men so much greater than we can ever hope to be considered, and if their fate ought not at once to operate as a warning to deter us from a confidence which might prove fatal, and as a light to guide us to that course which is justified by experience? Should we not, I ask, be worse than madmen, if, notwithstanding what we see, and what we know from the records of history, we were to plunge blindly into a difficulty, from which it would be vain to call upon our advisers to extricate us. No other course, therefore, remained to us, but to come at once and ask for the sanction of parliament. Our mere love of what we consider legal and constitutional constitutes all the 928 difference between us and our opponents. The fate of those who neglected parliament operates but as a stimulus to the one course, and as an avoidance of the other. Sir, we may come at last to that crisis which we dread; we may be compelled, if parliament refuses its consent to the measure we propose, and throws us back on the power of the Crown, to make use of the very means which we deprecate; but if we do, the responsibility rests not on us, but on the heads of those who not only desert their constitutional principles by refusing to enact the law, but even seem to think they have a sound argument in their desertion. These gentlemen say we have a power which we may use, and come before their tribunal for freedom from punishment; we wish the power to be granted, as by that tribunal; and that is the sole purport of the present measure. It is not my desire to agitate the country by any unnecessary apprehension. The time for the exercise of such a power may have never been more distant; but it is the desire of his majesty's ministers, founded on the justifiable principle of a sound precaution, to receive such a licence as they may exercise for the benefit of the community, should the necessity arise in those six weeks, when, perhaps, from a dissolution of parliament, they might be unable to apply to it as the repository of that power, and when the danger might be too imminent to endure delay. And never let it be said, that it was a crime in a British minister, that he prefers the sanction of parliament to an arbitrary exercise of the prerogatives of the Crown. Well, then, we ask permission to do, not that which we are by the constitution debarred from doing—for the very argument against it admitsourright— but we ask permission to do that, which, if we do upon our own responsibility, we must afterwards come to ask parliament to sanction by their approval. If parliament were not sitting when the exigency occurred, there might be a very good reason for adopting the course which we recommend, unsanctioned by their approbation. But we have parliament sitting, and, foreseeing the difficulty which may arise, we do that, which, if we neglected to do, would deservedly subject us to the imputation of having treated their authority with contempt. We might, perhaps, if we acted otherwise, adduce the case which occurred in the administration of lord Chatham and lord Camden; but we should, 929 if we did so, be justly met with this answer—"True, they acted as you say; but then there was this slight difference between your respective cases. They acted upon their own responsibility, when no parliament was sitting. You foresaw the danger, and yet you did not consent to consult a parliament which was sitting long before the danger which you apprehended had occurred. The responsibility, therefore, rests upon yourselves, and you must take the consequences." The difference of the circumstances makes all the difference of conduct; and I say that they who refuse to give us this sanction must take on themselves the consequence of the objection. So, again, I say, that if the Corn-law was one which, in the course of these debates, any one gentleman had said he was prepared and desirous to let go to its full operation, all these precautions might have been dispensed with. But what would become of the present difficulty? After the difficulty had been experienced, and when parliament met again, do hon. gentlemen think they would come to the discussion with a better temper because it had gone to its full extent? It is, therefore, Sir, that I say to gentlemen of the landed interest that this is their question; and it is for their protection I bring it forward. I bring it forward because I am sure, that till the question can be discussed in another session, probably in another parliament, it is better the law should remain, as it has hitherto done— almost a dead letter in its operation. I am sure that we did good last year by interposing the bonded corn—that we do good now to them by interposing the bonded corn this year—and that we provide for their advantage by taking a power to interpose again between the extreme operation of the law and the consequence to the agriculturists. Sir, it remains to state only the measure of responsibility which we propose to ask of parliament. We propose to ask a sanction for the exercise of the responsible discretion, which is not only admitted, but contended to exist in the Crown, in the case of an emergency. I said, on a former night, that so far from creating an extensive discretion, there was no mode of limiting it, consistent with its object, on the one part, and consistent on the other with a faithful adherence to the assurance that we did not wish to anticipate the discussion of the Corn-laws—that we did not earnestly desire. The resolution which I have to 930 propose to the House is this—"That it is the opinion of this committee, that it is expedient to empower his majesty, by any order or orders of his majesty in council, to permit, under certain regulations, and for a time to be limited, the entry, for home consumption, of an additional quantity of foreign corn, meal, or flour, subject to the duties which may be imposed by any act to be passed in this session of parliament." In the course of the former debate, I observed, that there were three modes by which the proposed resolution could be restricted; first, by the imposition of a duty; secondly, by a restriction as to price; and, thirdly, by a limitation in the quantity. Upon that occasion, an hon. and learned gentleman opposite objected, and with great appearance of justice, to the first of these modes—the imposition of a duty; while another hon. member expressed himself unfavourable to the second, upon the ground that I am fixed too low a maximum of price. Now I am disposed to yield to the suggestion of both the hon. members; and, doing away with the limitation as to price and duty, to retain that of quantity alone Another hon. gentleman suggested a limitation in the price, and proposed that wheat should not be admitted until it had risen to 65s. the quarter. This appear to me, on reflection, to be liable to the same objections, that it may be considered as fixing the rate at which importation should, in future, always take place. In one state of the country 65s. might be a very high price, and might press very heavily, whereas, in a more flourishing condition, it might be comparatively cheap; and this variation in the pressure of the same nominal amount of price appears to be a decided objection to this mode of regulating the importation. For these reasons, I think that the third mode is the best; namely, a limitation of the quantity to be imported; by this mode we leave the Corn-laws exactly as they were: we lay down no new principles create no prejudices. It becomes a mere temporary measure in all its circumstances accomplishing the object for which it was intended, without leaving any sting behind. As to the quantity beyond which importation shall not extend, that must be in some degree arbitrary; but, in the absence of any more commanding principle of action, I propose such a quantity as together with the corn to be released from bond, shall make one half of the greatest 931 importation ever made. According to this mode of estimating the quantity I shall propose 500,000 quarters as the limit in point of quantity. I do not know how to explain the nature and meaning of that limitation better than by reading the heads of a bill (worded technically of course, and subject to revision and correction) which I mean to found upon the resolution with which I shall conclude.— The right hon. gentleman here read the heads of the bill, which were as follow:— "Whereas an Act has been passed in the present session of parliament, to permit the entry for home consumption, of the foreign grain, meal, and flour, which were in the warehouses of the United Kingdom, on the 2nd of May, 1826; and it may be expedient, from circumstances which cannot now be foreseen, to admit, before the commencement of the next session of parliament, a further limited quantity of foreign corn, for home consumption, before such corn would be admissible under the laws now in force, relating to the importation of the said corn.—Be it therefore enacted, &c.—That it shall be lawful for his majesty, at any time, from and after the close of the present, and until the commencement of the next session of Parliament, by and with the advice of his majesty's Privy Council, to issue an order, or orders, to permit the entry, for home consumption, either of the whole, or of any proportion, of the foreign wheat, and of flour made of wheat, which may be in the warehouses of this country at the date of the issuing such order, or orders, respectively, Provided always, that the quantity of foreign wheat or flour so to be admitted under such order or orders, shall not exceed 500,000 quarters (500,000 quarters in the whole). Provided also, that no such order shall be in force for more than two months from the time of its being issued; and that any wheat, or flour made of wheat, in bond, which may have been included in such order, and which shall not have been taken out and entered for home consumption, according to the terms and conditions to be specified in such order, before the expiration of the period specified in such order, shall not be entitled to the benefit of such order.— That it shall be lawful for his majesty in council, by any such order as aforesaid, to require, as one of the conditions for admitting such foreign wheat, or flour, to enter for home consumption, that it shall, upon such entry, pay such duty 932 as the said order may direct, not exceeding any duty now imposed under the act of his present majesty, entitled 'An Act relating to the Importation of Foreign Corn.'"
By proposing to limit the importation of corn to the quantity provided for in the bill, I think we shall have fully provided for the probable wants of the people during the interval between the two parliaments. That is the great object which his majesty's ministers have had in view, and whatever objection may apply to the measure, either in principle or detail, I trust we shall, at least, be free from the imputation of having acted with bad faith towards the landed interest. It is an imputation which, as far as I am concerned, I most unequivocally disavow, and I can answer with equal sincerity for my colleagues. At all events, I am convinced, that we should not have discharged our duty, if we had taken the responsibility upon ourselves, and had declined to apply to parliament for their sanction to the measure which I have now the honour to propose. The right hon. gentleman concluded by moving the following resolution:—That it is the opinion of this Committee, that it is expedient to empower his majesty, by any order or orders of his majesty in council, to permit, under certain regulations, and for a time to be limited, the entry, for home consumption, of an additional quantity of foreign corn, meal, or flour, subject to the duties which may be imposed by any act to be passed in this session of parliament.
§ Mr. Carus Wilson,
as an humble representative of the landed interest, felt that he had little pretensions to claim the indulgence of the committee; and yet he did trust that, for the little he had to say on this occasion, he should be heard with some degree of attention. Upon a question of this kind, he thought the House would care but little whether the individual who addressed them was possessed of his 2,000l. or his 10,000l. a-year: in either case he must have his honest opinion, and would be entitled to deliver it. And there were hearts and judgments in that House which would neither deny him that privilege, nor disown that opinion" in a time of great public pressure. It had not been his good fortune to hear, on a former evening, the speech of his hon. friend, the member for Bridgenorth, upon the general question of the Corn-laws; but if he should have the honour of possessing 933 a seat in that House whenever that question again came on for discussion, he would endeavour to come to it prepared with the best consideration which he could give to it. At present he would confine himself to observing upon the temporary measure which had been proposed by his majesty's ministers, with a view to the alleviation of the distress prevailing in the manufacturing districts, that he had no doubt of its sound policy and ultimate efficacy. It was possible that he might be mistaken as to the general discretionary power with which they called upon parliament to invest them; but, as to the specific proposition relative to letting out the bonded corn, he was satisfied that he was not in error. He was one of those who thought there was the greatest probability, that, unless the measures which had been thus propounded were adopted by the committee, the deepest and most extensive distress would be experienced, ere long, in the country. If the more general measure, however, recommended by his hon. friend, should hereafter be found to be more beneficial in its nature, then, he did honestly declare, it should have his support in the first instance his most cordial recommendation in the second. But that was not the question at present. The question was one respecting a severe public pressure in a very populous portion of the kingdom. That being so, it did not matter to him, as a country gentleman, whether his income, in consequence of the adoption of these measures of relief, was to be high or low, great or small, during the period of their operation. No: it was of little consequence that he should be deprived of some things; that he should lose a few luxuries. He could be content to live on the food of his ancestors [a laugh]. It was not for him at such a crisis to look to these matters of private interest only; he was bound to look at the condition of the poor, at their wants, at the necessity of relieving them. And having, at all times, the greatest confidence in the wisdom of his majesty's government, and in the feeling and propriety, especially, with which they had introduced these propositions, he should give to them his willing support.
Sir Thomas Lethbridge
said, he rose under great difficulties, to speak upon this question, after the right hon. Secretary, who had addressed himself to it in his usual agreeable and fascinating manner. 934 At the same time, and although he should probably find himself in a small minority in that opinion, he must declare, that he was by no means satisfied with the case which had been made out by the right hon. gentleman for these measures. His case was built on probabilities, and by no means proceeded on facts; and he had laid no ground to justify the extraordinary apprehension of such a calamity as a famine. He had not heard any attempt to prove that such a case was in the slightest degree likely to occur during the recess, or the dissolution, of parliament. And yet the very ground upon which the right hon. gentleman sought to rest his application to that House for the investiture of government with the powers referred to in the bill of which he had just read a draft, was this extreme case of such a fearful visitation as famine. The right hon. gentleman had argued all along upon what must come to pass if such an affliction should next autumn befall the county. But since no reason could be assigned to justify such apprehensions, he was not disposed to give the ministers of the Crown such powers as they now wished to have confided to them. He understood the right hon. gentleman to propose that 500,000 quarters of foreign wheat should be admitted into our ports within a certain period of the present year, such importation to be regulated by provisions similar to those of the act of 1822; and though the right hon. gentleman had not specifically stated at what duty this corn was to come into the country, he (sir T. L.) apprehended be meant it to be about 12s. the quarter. Now, he could see no difference, if the fact were so, whether 2,000, or 200,000, or 500,000 quarters were to be so imported, at the discretion of government. That discretion, it would be admitted on all hands, was only to be justified in its exercise, in the event o corn reaching here what the right hon. gentleman called a famine price. But what that famine price was, the right hon. gentleman had not remembered to state He rather hinted that it was 65s. Be surely 65s. per quarter for English wheat was not fairly to be considered as a famine price by the parliament and the government of this country. If it was, he must be allowed to say that there was a very great difference between the views of the present government and the government which, in 1822, acted upon the statute the passed for allowing a limited importation 935 at a certain duty. It had been said by one hon. member, that 60s. was a sufficient price for the landed interest. Another hon. gentleman took 65s. to be a sufficient price; and yet the right hon. gentleman gave the committee to understand, that it was proposed by government that when the price of wheat had reached 65s. the quarter, that should be the price which should authorize them to admit foreign corn to the tune of 500,000 quarters. Now, the only consolatory passage which he had heard in the speech of the right hon. gentleman was, that he meant to limit himself to an importation of 500,000 quarters only. The foreign wheat, which, by the first of the two measures propounded by government, would be loosed from the warehouses in which it had been bonded, added to this amount of 500,000 quarters, would make an aggregate of foreign corn in the market of about 1,000,000 quarters. In his conscience, he believed that the bonded corn which would be loosed would amount, at least, to 400,000 quarters; and, therefore, he repeated, that the only consolatory part of the right hon. gentleman's speech was that limitation of 500,000. It was for this reason that he did not feel so great an objection to the proposition as if it had been to give a power of unlimited importation; which, however, he had an understood right to assume it was meant to give, when the right hon. gentleman first came down and announced his intention of introducing the measure. But though to this extent he had some right to feel less dissatisfied with it, he must still oppose it, as being contrary to the recorded opinion and acts of his majesty's government at so recent a period. For his own part, he quite concurred with the hon. member for Hertford, in calling upon the House well to consider how far, in the event of these 500,000 quarters being admitted, at a duty of 12s., it could ever be possible for them to look forward to the imposition of a higher duty on future importations.—The right hon. gentleman had carried the committee a long way back into the history of the country; in short, to the year 1766, when the great lord Chatham and the great lord Camden were in the government of these kingdoms; and he built his present measures on what he called—not the experience, but the warning, of those ministers. Now, he could not comprehend how the policy of the country at that period could 936 enter into or affect the present question. Was Holland, at that time, as she now was, crowded with warehouses full of corn? Were other states on the continent such large growers of grain, as they now were? Were the means of communication between the most distant countries of the globe as rapid, or as certain then as at present? Or was the intercourse between all the nations of Europe as facile and commodious for the purposes of commerce as at this moment? How different, too, was the case of our own country at that period, seeing that she was then approaching to a state of famine, from having been a corn-exporting country. Nothing like this state of things, however, existed in our time. We were no longer an exporting, but an importing country, as to corn; and an argument founded on our condition in this and other respects in 1766 was a mere fallacy. There was no foundation for the assertion of a similar case of approaching famine, and the whole of that part of the right hon. gentleman's speech was a piece of reasoning contrary to common sense and real facts. If there had been any truth in the assumption upon which it at all proceeded, it would have been the duty of government to assist the House with its superior information on so important a subject. Not being able, therefore, to see upon what grounds the argument of the right hon. gentleman proceeded, he must declare that, however anxious he always felt to listen to any measures which were recommended by that right hon. gentleman's powerful eloquence, and supported by his powerful influence in that House, still he was not to be carried away by what had that night been said by the right hon. gentleman; who must excuse him for observing, that his speech had by no means convinced him that the government on this occasion were entitled to the support they asked. He could not help thinking that this was the last time upon which they were likely to discuss the corn question for some time; for, if the duty of 12s. were once fixed, it would always be a precedent to the prejudice of the landed interest.
§ Mr. Portman
said, he was certainly one of those who had been most opposed to the resolution in question, in its first stage; for he did not believe the distresses of the districts in which the greatest suffering existed to have arisen either from the high price of corn or the scarcity 937 of money, but from a want of employment on the part of the workmen, originating in a deficiency of credit experienced on the part of the manufacturers. With respect to the second resolution—that which was now more immediately under discussion—he fairly confessed, that the view he had originally felt disposed to take of it was much changed. As an agriculturist, as a landed proprietor, and as a representative of an agricultural county, he was not prepared to take upon his own shoulders, either for himself or for his constituents, that degree of responsibility upon a question like the; present, which, he conceived, ought justly and properly to be borne by his majesty's ministers. He considered his majesty's government to be a responsible body. Whatever consequences might follow from the opening of the corn trade he thought they must be chargeable with; and, as a country gentleman, he would throw back upon their shoulders the degree of responsibility which they had attempted to throw on the landed interest. If by these measures they did an injury to the agriculturists, let that injury be upon them. Indeed, as far as injury went, they had inflicted a severe blow upon the agricultural body already, for they had told the House that there was a probability of the price of corn rising; and, that, therefore, it was necessary to permit this importation. But he fully agreed with an observation which had fallen from the right hon. gentleman, that it was most impolitic at all times to dabble with the Corn-laws; and he did; believe, with the same right hon. gentleman, that it was perfectly impossible, at the present moment, permanently or effectually to settle that question. And he did so, feeling that whenever they came to its discussion, his majesty's government ought to be prepared with some proper and complete measure to replace the now-existing law. Much, therefore, as he respected the opinions of his hon. friend near him, he could not willingly allow the landed interest to take up the burthen of so fearful a responsibility as they would be assuming by rejecting the present proposition. At the same time he protested, in the face of the House and of the country, that, for his own part, he was prepared to go into the whole question of the Corn-laws whenever the government should be so, provided the latter came to it with some 938 such adequate and efficient measure to propose as he had spoken of. He made these observations the rather, because of the dabbling in this momentous subject which had already taken place, owing to the admissions which had been made in parliament by members of the government, that the Corn-laws, on their present footing, were inefficient. This, itself, was a most dangerous dabbling; but, if government were not vested with the temporary powers which they now asked for, he apprehended that the consequences to the country might prove of a distressing and dangerous nature. The hon. gentleman concluded by declaring that he should support the resolution.
§ Mr. H. Sumner
conceived, that the right hon. Secretary for Foreign Affairs had argued as if the country were either in a state of actual famine, or approaching to such a state. This was made the ground of justification of the measures now proposed. But it was a singular piece of inconsistency on the part of his majesty's ministers, that whereas, on the 18th of April last only, they had declared that the country was not in a state to permit of the effecting any alteration in the Corn-laws, they now came down with propositions directly affecting the principle and altering the operation of those laws. They could not say they were taken by surprise; for the only difference between that period and the present was, that then the same distresses existed, but now they had broken out into acts of violence and outrage. If they were taken by surprise, the fact spoke but little for their foresight. If they were not, their present proceeding was one of extraordinary inconsistency with their recent declaration. For his own part, he had no objection to take to himself his full share of that responsibility which the hon. member for Dorsetshire had said he threw from him. The country, in his opinion, called on the landed interest to assume that responsibility, and he should oppose the resolution of one of his majesty's ministers, the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade, although one of the committee who prepared the bill, the principle of which was so directly affected, had ever since been, by his votes in that House, actually trenching upon it. —"Last year," said the right hon. gentleman, "when permission was given to take out foreign bonded corn at a certain duty, that permission had not been attended 939 with any bad consequences to the landed interest." No: but last year the poor-rates were by no means so heavy as they now must be by reason of the distresses of the manufacturing districts, upon the landed interest. The landed proprietors, who would be prejudiced by these measures in the sale of their produce, would now have to pay their increased poor-rates. This burthen they would have to meet in the face of an importation of 500,000 quarters of foreign corn. In respect of what had fallen from the hon. member for Wootton Basset (Mr. G. Philips) about the advantage of low prices of corn, he begged to say that, with the exception of two years only, since the Corn-bill was passed, he did not recollect any period at which it had not happened, that when the prices of corn were high, the country was in a state of general prosperity; or when those prices were low, that it was not in a declining condition. He had the greatest objection to any alteration of the principle of the Corn-law. If that law was to be neutralized or altered, ministers should have brought on the whole question of those laws last year. At present he was very fearful that the duty they would propose would prove no protection to agriculture. Whenever the ports were opened, it would be found that our agriculture could not sustain itself. Closed ports until our corn reached a certain price was a sine qua non for the welfare of our landed interest. The right hon. gentleman had asked what would be the consequence of not having made some such provision as he proposed, if any further accidents fell out during the recess of parliament? He begged in reply, to ask whose fault would it be if there were no parliament? His hon. friends were very much belied if it was not their intention within two months to have a new parliament. But, supposing the present one to last a month longer, in forty days more they could assemble another; so that very little difficulty of the kind suggested by the right hon. Secretary need realty be experienced. He should oppose the resolution.
Mr. Secretary Peel
said:—Sir, since I have had the honour of a seat in parliament, I do not remember to have heard such unfounded charges of inconsistency as those which have just been advanced against his majesty's government. I am 940 anxious, Sir, to declare my entire concurrence in all that has been said upon the question before the committee by my right hon. friend. And, at the same time, I will again declare, that if I had now to vote upon the proposition of my hon. friend, the member for Bridgenorth, I would vote precisely as I did upon the very day to which the hon. member for Surrey has referred, the 18th of April last. Had I possessed, on that day, the gift even of foresight—and had I come to such a discussion with all the benefit of that deliberate reflection and enlarged knowledge upon the subject, which the debates upon it may be supposed to have subsequently furnished me with—and had I been cognizant of all those charges of vacillation and inconsistency which have this evening been urged against his majesty's ministers — yet, Sir, founding my decision upon what I believed to be the best ground, and with a view of ensuring, at a future day, a calm and unimpassioned discussion of the Corn-laws, I would as certainly have voted, upon looking at the present circumstances and situation of the country, against the motion of my hon. friend, the member for Bridge-north, for entertaining the proposition he then submitted to the House, with a view to the permanent arrangement of the law respecting the importation of foreign corn. I see no well-founded charge of inconsistency against his majesty's ministers, because at this time they propose to parliament the measures which my right hon. friend has propounded to the committee;—because they are applying to the legislature for that discretionary authority, with which it may be a matter of prudence and a means of safety to invest them; or because they call for such a provision, in the apprehension that there may be a grievous pressure experienced by the people from the possible rise of agricultural produce beyond its present prices. Looking at the expediency of protecting those classes of the community who would be most affected by a rise from future pressure of that kind, my right hon. friend proposes to arm the government with powers of a discretionary nature, in order to prevent any such pressure, which might otherwise be likely to be experienced in the manufacturing districts. My hon. friend, the member for Dorsetshire, whom I have heard this evening with so much pleasure, says, that he throws back upon his majesty's government the responsi- 941 bility which he considers we would throw upon the landed interest. Sir, we accept that responsibility. Our proposition is, that such a responsibility should be imposed upon those with whom alone it ought to be trusted; namely, his majesty's government. But we say to the gentlemen of the landed interest, "If you refuse us these powers, the responsibility is no longer on our shoulders, but on yours." The whole effect of the motion which is submitted to the committee will be, to place those powers in the hands of the Executive government. My hon. friend, the member for Dorsetshire, thinks that no case is made out as to the necessity of low prices of corn. But my hon. friend, the member for Surrey, charges his majesty's government with vacillation and inconsistency; because, after negativing the vote which the hon. member for Bridgenorth asked the House to come to upon the 18th of April, in respect of the propriety of remodelling the Corn-laws altogether, they now propose the admission into the country of 500,000 quarters of foreign corn. Why, Sir, if this sophistry is to avail, let me ask where is the consistency of the hon. member for Surrey himself? He says, that we should have brought forward the whole question of the Corn-laws before this period. But what have been his votes on the subject? When the hon. member for Bridgenorth proposed to discuss the corn question, did he not vote against the discussion? And when it was proposed to let out bonded corn at a duty, in a former year, did he not support the proposition?
§ Mr. Peel.
—But did my hon. friend oppose it? Was he not prepared to admit foreign wheat, under such circumstances, into the market? I do appeal to the landed interest, to those members of it who are now present in the committee, and to that fairness and manliness which I know them to possess; and I call upon them, if they wish to prohibit the admission of foreign corn generally, with a view to prevent competition, and have yet been willing, under some circumstances, to let it come in; if they see no inconsistency in this, I say, do let them feel rightly for those who propose to parliament a measure which may have the effect of alleviating the pressure which weighs so heavily on the manufacturing community. Sir, I can have no prepossessions against either the manufacturing or the agricul- 942 tural interest. My connexions with both of them would effectually prevent me from being opposed to either. With the manufacturing interest I am connected by many important ties; but, as far as personal interest is concerned, I believe I may say, no man is more deeply concerned in the welfare of the agriculturists than myself. My hon. friend who spoke last has said, and I have heard the observation repeated more than once by others, that there is no use in increasing the supply of corn in this country, and lowering its price; since they who are in want of money altogether cannot buy it at any price, however low. Why, Sir, what miserable sophistry is this! To suppose that there are no classes in this country except those who are abounding in wealth, and can command all luxuries—and those who are in the other extreme, and unable to purchase even the necessaries of life. But I put it to my hon. friend, whether there are not between those two classes many intermediate ones, who possess, in various degrees, the means of purchasing some of them the luxuries, some the comforts, and some the necessaries, of life? Is it possible to contend, that no immediate advantage will result to the other classes from lowering the price of corn to them, if it shall have attained such an additional price in the market as to render it dearer than it is at present? Look at the distressed classes of manufacturers; look at the number of unemployed persons, who are suffering: at Rochford there are 10,000, at another place 12,000, at another 15,000. How are they supported at this moment? Why, Sir, they are supported by the benevolence of their neighbours. And if the effect of the measures proposed by my right hon. friend be to enable those neighbours, with the contributions raised for their relief, to purchase additional supplies of corn, to be afforded to those who have no means of purchasing it, what folly is it to contend that lowering the price of corn, and thereby enlarging the quantities which such monies will purchase, will not relieve the unfortunate people in question? When my hon. friend says, that no case had been made out, I would ask what it is he means? Quite sure I am that I may appeal to the committee whether, in the very fact of those existing distresses, such a case is not made out? I am so confident that the general conviction of the distress which now prevails in the 943 manufacturing districts must have come home to the mind and knowledge of every man, from the information which has been supplied on that head by the daily newspapers, as to be perfectly satisfied, that the same motives which induce parliament to concur in the proposition for letting out the bonded coin, will also induce it to give a discretionary power to the government to do precisely the same thing, or a measure of similar effect; that is to say, to admit 500,000 quarters of foreign corn into our ports. I have listened with great attention to the arguments of my hon. friend, the member for Somersetshire, but he seems a little to misapprehend the propositions of my right hon. friend. My right hon. friend does not propose, as the hon. baronet supposes, a specific duty of 10s. the quarter on the corn so to be imported. But why does my hon. friend, of all men, assuming even that his notion is correct, enter his opposition to such a duty. In the last year, when foreign corn was admitted, it was admitted at 10s. only; and this 10s. has since been assumed, I think, as the maximum of duty to be imposed on future importations. But, in point of fact, Sir, in the very first instance, when some vague proposition was made on the subject, 12s. was suggested by my right hon. friend. He departed from the precedent of the former year: he did not take 10s. a quarter, but he did take 12s. per quarter for the new duty. How can there, I ask, be a more conclusive proof than this, that if the duty now to be fixed were a definite duty, it would be likely, even at 12s. to be permanent or prejudicial to the landed interest? But my hon. friend, the member for Somerset, is alarmed, because, as he observes, we positively mean to admit 500,000 quarters of foreign wheat. That, Sir, is by no means necessarily the case. My hon. friend, upon looking at the bill about to be brought in, will find that there is an express provision in it,—in the event of 200,000, or even: 100,000 quarters proving sufficient to meet the exigency of the case,—that there shall be no obligation upon his: majesty's government to admit the whole 500,000 quarters. The 500.000 quarters compose the maximum quantity, which, in any event, can be admitted in virtue of this proposition; but there is an express power to limit the amount of the importation to any degree, according to circumstances. There is another observation, 944 (to which I have before had occasion to reply) that I have heard again suggested namely, it has been said, that to pass these measures would be to make an unbecoming and dangerous concession to an infuriated and destructive mob. No man, Sir, would be more disposed to resist and oppose any concession of that kind than I should be. From such a quarter, no man could be less willing to countenance any demands, be they what they might, than myself. But when I am told of unworthy concessions, let me observe, Sir, that there are two sorts of courage which may be displayed in respect of them: there is the courage of refusing to accede to such demands at all; and there is another kind of courage—the courage to do that which in our conscience we may believe to be just and right, disregarding all the clamour with which these demands may be accompanied. I fairly own that I feel it to be in our power to manifest this species of courage, and to laugh at the clamours of the mob. In England, after all, Sir, the mob can do nothing. There is a pervading power in this country, a moral feeling, that can at all times put down any mob. Do not let us, therefore, refuse to take these, or any other, steps which we believe to be right, from any pusillanimous apprehensions of the power of the mob. Now, Sir, I have no hesitation in saying, that the disturbances which have occurred at Manchester and its neighbourhood have been greatly exaggerated. I see it stated in the papers, that for months past applications have been made to me, and requisitions sent up for reinforcements, which have been withheld. I will venture to say that, at no former period of our history have such charges been so utterly unfounded. I have no hesitation in declaring that, suspecting the probability of such disturbances as these, I, months ago, took the precaution, without any application from the northern districts for the purpose, of establishing double the military force which had been for the year preceding stationed in those quarters. I make this assertion, because I see it elsewhere stated, that if these applications had not been neglected, and if more assistance had been supplied, the outrages which have been committed might have been obviated. I say, broadly, that such assertions are totally unfounded. I say that which I believe can be rarely said, that not only was the force in question 945 double, without any application made to me from those districts; but that no applications which have ever been made to me on this subject have ever been neglected. But the fact is, that it is in the power of a very few persons to do a great deal of mischief. Where there is no military force established in the neighbourhood, a very few persons may assemble together, and, attacking a manufactory a few miles distant from a town, break into it, and soon destroy a few power-looms. What, however, I am most anxious to impress upon the committee is, the erroneousness of the apprehension, that any mischief can ensue, in the way of a dangerous concession, from the simple measure now submitted to it. For, although excesses have been committed, yet, by the exertion of the energies of government, I hope that their continuance has been repressed; but I feel called upon to say, that, in many places where distress has existed to a great extent, the privations have been borne by the lower classes with fortitude and forbearance. There have been no disturbances in Yorkshire, where much pressure and inconvenience have been felt; except, indeed, at Bradford, where they have not been carried to any great extent. Yet I must reject the imputation, that his majesty's government have adopted this measure on account of the clamour that has been raised against the Corn-laws; and I must also deny, that the measure is calculated to produce an addition to the poor-rates, by throwing the agricultural labourers out of employ, as has been urged; as I think that circumstances may occur in which the admission of foreign corn may tend to reduce the poor-rates. The hon. member for Somersetshire has charged us with proposing the measure to parliament, without stating facts to support it. We reply, that it is not on facts that it is grounded; it is only on contingencies, as in the event of the next harvest failing, we deem it to be the part of a wise and prudent government to arm itself against necessity; but still the case is not so denuded of facts, but that many might be adduced in support of the measure. I hold in my hand an account of the prices of corn in the last year and in the present, and I find them to be nearly equal; and I cannot account if there is, as is said, a superabundance of corn in the country, how it happens that it should for so long 946 a period maintain its price; because, if we look at the prices of other commodities in the year 1825, and at the present period, we shall find a great disparity: as, for instance, the price of cotton varied in that year from 9¼d. to 12d. the present price is from 4¼d. to 6d.; Pernambuco had fallen near 100 per cent, as, in 1825, it was from 1s. 7d. to 1s. 8d., now it is from 10d. to 11d.; coffee was from 84s. to 865 now it is from 44s. to 52s. In all those articles the depression had been tremendous; sugar had fallen from 70s. to 50s.; rum from 2s. 2d. to 1s. 8d.; tallow from 44s. to 32s.; while wheat, which was last year 66s. is now 61s.; and oats, which were 27s. are now 23s. In these circumstances alone, Sir, I think there are facts enough, on which a presumption may be founded, that there is not a superabundance of wheat in the country; and, therefore, my right hon. friend requires that the government should be armed with the power of admitting foreign corn, in case events should render it necessary, for the purpose of avoiding the inconvenience that must ensue, if such an important article should, by any casualty, attain to a very high price. It is a delusion to suppose that foreign corn is, by the present law, admissible directly the price of corn actually reaches 80s. That is not the law. The price must be regulated by a long course of averages, so that corn might be, in fact, at 100s., and yet the ports could not be opened for the admission of foreign grain, unless the average of a number of years would make the price of it 80s. In stating this fact, I think I perceive a change in the face of an hon. member, which indicates that I here give a solid reason why the whole question of the Corn-laws might be at once opened to a full consideration and discussion; but I take the present measure to be the more simple one, and the better calculated to meet the anticipated emergency; and if I am called upon I shall be ready to vindicate that opinion. The whole question must undergo a revision in the next session of parliament: and if ever there was a measure calculated to insure a thorough and an impartial consideration of the Corn-laws, that measure is the one which my right hon. friend has this night propounded. A large majority of this House decided the other night, that the present period was not a fit one for the consideration of this question, and had seen full reason to postpone it till the 947 next session. My right hon. friend has almost exhausted the constitutional part of this question; yet, perhaps, I may be permitted to say a few words on it. His majesty's ministers have thought it right to ask parliament for its consent to enable them to open the ports, if such a measure should be found necessary, rather than after having exercised such a power without the sanction of parliament, to have to apply to the House for indemnity for so doing. We have, Sir, the precedent of the year 1766 before our eyes; and we there see how the ministers of that day were charged with treating the parliament with disrespect for not having furnished themselves with its authority, in circumstances exactly similar to the present. The parliament, in May 1766, was petitioned by the lord mayor and corporation of London, to adopt some measures to prevent the exportation of corn at a time when a scarcity was anticipated; that, as well as other petitions, was neglected. In June, the parliament was prorogued, without having taken any steps to provide against a scarcity; and, before it re-assembled, corn had reached so high a price, that the king was advised to issue an order in council, laying an embargo on the exportation of that article. The conduct of the king's ministers on that occasion was severely arraigned, and the gravamen of the offence charged upon them was, the not having foreseen, and constitutionally provided against, such a calamity. The king summoned the parliament in November, and at the opening of it addressed it in the following words: "The high price of wheat, and the defective produce of that grain last harvest, together with the extraordinary demands for the same from foreign parts, have principally determined me to call you thus early together, that I might have the sense of parliament, as soon as conveniently might be, on a matter so important, and particularly affecting the poorer sort of my subjects. The urgency of the necessity called upon me, in the mean time, to exert my royal authority for the preservation of the public safety against a growing calamity, which could not admit of delay. I have, therefore, by and with the advice of my privy council, laid an embargo on wheat and wheat-flour going out of the kingdom, until the advice of parliament could be taken thereupon. If further provisions of law be requisite or expedient, with regard to the dearness 948 of corn, so necessary to the sustenance of the poorer sort, they cannot escape the wisdom of parliament, to which I recommend the due consideration thereof." On that occasion, very angry and lengthened debates had taken place as to the disrespect with which the parliament and the country had been treated by the ministers of the day, for attempting to screen themselves under an act of indemnity, instead of fore-arming themselves with the authority of the parliament for their proceeding; and I have no doubt, Sir, that if we were now to suffer the parliament to separate, and, if after its separation, a case should arise to render the introduction of foreign corn a matter of absolute necessity, that the king's ministers would be threatened on all hands with an impeachment, and every word that had been used against the government in the year 1766, would be triumphantly thrown in our teeth. Lord Mansfield had, in the course of the discussion that had taken place on that occasion, used these words:—"I will say, in general, that he is not a moderate minister who will rashly decide in favour of prerogative in a question where the rights of parliament are on their side: and I am sure he is not a prudent minister, who, even in a doubtful case, commits the prerogative by a wanton experiment to what degree the people will bear the extent of it. But, my lords, rashly and wilfully to claim or exercise as prerogative, a power clearly against law, is too great boldness for this country; and of all things in the world, the suspending or dispensing power, that edged tool which has cut so deep, is the last that any man in his wits would handle in England; that rock, which the English history has warned against with such awful beacons;—an attempt that lost one prince his crown, and another both his crown and his head; and at length expelled their family out of this land of liberty to the regions of tyranny, as the only climate that suited their genius and temper—a power, the exercise of which stands branded as the subversion of the constitution, in the front of that truly great charier of your liberties, the Bill of Rights. A minister, who is not afraid of that power, is neither fit for the sovereign nor the subject. I love a bold minister, when he keeps in the true sphere. In times of distress and danger, boldness is a jewel; and, with joy, I have seen bold, even wild, enterprises, succeed, though hardly within the die when undertaken. But the 949 enemies of our country are the proper objects of our boldness—not the constitution." Now, Sir, supported by this authority, I call on the House to grant to; the government that power which alone may be exercised by them, without in fringing on the principles of the constitution; a power intended only for the prevention of public calamity; a power calculated for the general safety of the people; and, as a friend of the agricultural interest, and convinced that the exercise of that power cannot be injurious to the possessors of land; and, anxious as I am for the permanent and satisfactory settlement of the law respecting the importation of foreign corn, I deprecate most earnestly the rejection of my right hon. friend's resolution.
§ Lord Althorp
said, he must oppose the motion, because he considered it nothing less than an indirect and unfair tampering with the Corn-laws, and that it would, if carried into effect, place all the farms in the country at the mercy and disposal of his majesty's ministers. Was it pretended that it was absolutely necessary to dissolve parliament before the ensuing harvest? And, if not, surely there was sufficient time to enter minutely into the whole question, and set it at rest.
said, he was anxious to see the Corn-laws repealed; but he took a different view of the present measure from his majesty's ministers, though he should vote with them upon it. The rise in the price of corn, which the right hon. Secretary had brought forward in proof of a deficiency, might be accounted for in a different way. During the time that our bankers and merchants were failing, there had been a considerable fall in the price of agricultural produce; but the panic having now, in a great measure, subsided, and confidence been partially restored, it was but natural to suppose that it would again rise. With regard to the fall in the price of cotton, and various other articles, quoted by the right hon. gentleman, it was well known, that vast speculations had taken place in all of them, and produced convulsions from which they had not yet recovered. There was, therefore, no just ground for the inference drawn from the rise in the one, and the fall in the other, that there was a deficiency of corn in the country. The measure which he would have preferred, and which government ought to have pursued, was a complete and final revision of 950 the whole system—a revision to which no valid objection had been offered, nor against which even the semblance of an argument adduced. If ever there was a time when this act of justice was called for, it was the present; for all the agitation, all the alarm, to which it could possibly have given rise, had been produced by the present measure.
§ Mr. Benett
said, that though he had lost none of his repugnance to the measure now proposed, yet he should not make any very determined opposition to it. A right hon. gentleman had compared the prices of corn and cotton, but he did not think that a fair mode of stating the question. There was no similarity between them, and there was no ground of comparison. The right hon. gentleman had contrasted the fluctuations in the prices of wheat, as compared with other articles, in rather an unfair manner. He would contrast it in a way more likely to lead to a correct conclusion: he would compare the ten years preceding the year 1792 with the ten years preceding the year 1826, to show that wheat had not kept pace in its rise with other articles. The increase of price in the latter ten years over the former was as follows, in the undermentioned articles:—wine, 190 per cent; shoes, 200; hats, 200; bricks and tiles, 100; coals, 75; glass bottles, 72; butter, 25; labour (annual) 60; labour (daily) 33; wheat only 25 per cent; therefore the increase in favour of wheat was not as great as had been represented.
Sir W. W. Wynn
said, he was glad that the House had agreed to give out to the country the corn in bond, as he conceived that it would prove a most seasonable relief to the unfortunate persons who were unhappily suffering from want of employment. He gave his most cordial consent to this motion, feeling, that if it should be found necessary to act upon it, a great and seasonable relief would be afforded to the country.
said, that it was not his intention to occupy much of the time of the House, and he should not have risen at all, had it not been that frequent allusions had been made to the measure which he had brought forward, and so many charges thrown out against him for bringing it forward. Ministers had thrown in his teeth, that he had adopted a bad course, by agitating the question, after they had decided against any alteration of the law during the present session; but 951 the proposals with which they had now come down to the House bore ample testimony, that the course which he had pursued was salutary and proper. They deprecated the time which he had chosen to bring forward his motion, and gave him reason to believe that he would meet with their support, if he delayed it until the information which had been procured, had had time to make a due impression. But, how stood the fact? He gave notice of his motion early in the session, and fixed a day in March; but he did not bring it forward until April, from an apprehension, that it might affect the future harvest. Now, he could not see, if the 10th of April was an improper time for bringing forward his motion, how the 5th of May should not be so also; what was desirable in this care on the one day, must surely be desirable on the other. The discretionary power which was sought by ministers was most dangerous, and pregnant with more alarm than that which he had proposed. Look how the question was now met. He would have preferred that manner of treating it which would have led to the most ample discussion, and the most general information; but this desirable end was defeated by the present proposition. No new light had been acquired; and, from the narrow view which was taken of the subject, no new light could be struck out. He could not see how his conduct could be arraigned as injudicious. He might retort the charge, and assert, that the part which was acted by his majesty's ministers had not been that of discretion. The hon. member for Dorset had complained of him for taking up a subject to which he thought no individual in the House was competent; but if he had not persevered in bringing it forward, the period at which any effectual revision would have taken place, would have been still further removed than what it now was. The hon. member for Dorset took a strange view of the duties of members of parliament, if he thought that the importance of a question ought to deter them, individually, from meddling with it. He had exposed himself to much abuse and obloquy by agitating it; but he was conscious that he had done good. With regard to the present measure, he must confess, that he thought it desirable, before the present question was settled, that the Mouse should hear some account from his majesty's ministers of the way in which they intended to exercise the power which 952 they now sought; for though it might not be proper to settle either the time or the rate at which corn should be imported from abroad, it would be a matter of great alarm to agriculturists, if the question was left in that naked state in which it now was, and without that security being afforded them which he deemed to be necessary to their welfare. When the agriculturists came to know that the bonded wheat was to be released, and 500,000 quarters imported from abroad, in case of necessity, prices would fall, great alarm would be the result, and that alarm might last so long as to be very injurious to them. Supposing they were forced into the market just now, and it was afterwards discovered that there was an actual deficiency of grain in the country, it was evident that they would suffer great injury, and that the benefit of the measure would rest with the foreign grower. He should, therefore, like to know how the measure was to be carried into effect.
Mr. Secretary Canning
assured the hon. member, that he had much mistaken him if he supposed that he meant to impute blame to him for the motion he had made. He had certainly spoken of the inconvenience to which it had put them, but he had never thought of denying the perfect right of the hon. gentleman to originate such a motion.
§ Lord Milton
said, he had no disposition to enter at any length upon the question before the House. Whatever vote he might ultimately give, he should make no opposition to the measure in its present stage. What he had risen principally to notice, was the speech of the hon. member for Denbighshire. The alteration which had taken place since Tuesday last, might convince him that the power of the landed interest was neither unseen, nor unfelt. He had no wish that it should be either unseen or unfelt. If in any observations which he had made respecting country gentlemen and landed proprietors, to which body he had the honour to belong, he had given them cause to feel aggrieved, he could safely say, that those observations were made with the view of attracting their attention to the subject. If they would do so, he felt persuaded that they would soon arrive at the same conclusion to which he had come; namely, that their own interests, and the interests of the country would be best promoted, by applying the same principles to corn, which 953 had been lately introduced with respect to other commodities. The hon. member had said, that 500,000 quarters would empty the granaries of the north, and had expressed a hope that the emptying of the warehouses in Lancashire would follow. That was the view which ought to be taken of the question: that was the true sense in which it ought to be looked at. Let there be an interchange of commodities—let there be freedom of commerce upon the broad principle of mutual advantage— and general prosperity would be the result. That prosperity could not be attained by supporting any one class of his majesty's subjects, at the expense of another. If the landowners would attend to this advantage, and to the thousand beneficial consequences which would result from it, they would see that there was but little ground for the alarm respecting free trade, which they appeared to entertain. Although the repeal of the Corn-laws would have a tendency to reduce rents, and to lower the price of corn, yet, when they considered the various advantages which they would derive from it in different ways, they would see that the loss on the one hand was countervailed by the gain on the other. With regard to the proposition itself, he must say, that the House had been grossly misused by his majesty's ministers. What was the proposition which they had made to the House, on Tuesday last? They sought the power of admitting foreign corn, at a duty of 12s. per quarter; but an hon. member for a Welsh county happened to say, that 65s. was a fair price, the price he presumed at which the hon. member could afford to raise his own wheat, and the right hon. gentleman instantly caught at it; yet, in the course of three days, he had contrived to change his mind, and now came down with a proposition, in which both duty and price were left wholly out of the question. He did not quarrel with the proposal to import a certain quantity of grain; but he did think that so many changes of opinion were but little creditable to the proposers, and that the House had good cause to complain of them for not knowing their own minds. [Mr. Canning said, across the table, what use, then, was there in such discussions?] True, ministers took care to avail themselves of this advantage. Formerly, their plans were first arranged and settled among themselves. The use of a cabinet or of a privy council was, 954 that they might do so; but the system was now changed, and, instead of coming forward with a well-digested plan, they asked for advice and information, and acted as they found the balance of votes in the House likely to be for or against them. He hailed the proposition under discussion as a harbinger of other measures to be brought forward next year; but ministers had acted far from wisely Tampering with the great subject of the Corn-laws, recommending one plan to-day and another to-morrow, and abandoning both for a third scheme on the day following, was much more likely to alarm and inflame the country, than a fair, open, and general discussion.
admitted, that the manner in which the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had treated the subject that evening did him great credit; but great credit was also due to those who compelled them to adopt this course. Although premature discussion had been censured on a former night, it had had the beneficial effect of occasioning the present modification of the original plan; which modification, he candidly confessed, seemed far less objectionable. What was now proposed was not a settlement of the question of the Corn-laws by a side wind; it had nothing to do with the duty or price; but it gave ministers a power to do a certain definite act, in the contemplation of a state of affairs, which probably might exist during the recess of parliament, instead of requiring them afterwards to call upon both Houses to grant them indemnity for a course which they had been imperatively called upon to pursue. His view of the condition of the country was at variance with that of the right hon. gentleman; but, Heaven forbid that he should set up his notion, formed, perhaps, without adequate means of knowledge, against the deliberate opinion of ministers, when the comfort, happiness, and tranquillity of the whole population was concerned. The pride of opinion should never carry him so far as to risk such sacred interests, even though he felt satisfied that he derived it from the best sources of information. One circumstance he could not understand. Corn at this moment was 7s. or 8s. per quarter lower than at this period last year; yet ministers then contemplated no such danger as they now apprehended, and to provide against which they were to be armed with extraordinary powers. The 955 very preparation almost created the danger. It was impossible to suppose that these discussions could go forth, with opinions emanating from such high authority, without producing great alarm; but this very circumstance rendered it the more necessary to trust to the responsibility of ministers, and to grant them what they required. At the same time, he must not be considered pledged beyond the present stage. He already saw vast difficulties in the execution of the plan, but he waited for the details before he came to any final decision. From this time forth, ministers took into their hands the power of settling the price of corn; the directors of the Bank had the power, by law, of settling the value of the currency; and the value of the bread of the country, by law, was to be confided to the directors of the Treasury; a heavy responsibility, but better than running the risk of the dangers produced, and threatened, by the bill of 1815. While that measure was under discussion, week after week, and day after day, he, and a miserable few who had acted with him, had warned ministers of the consequences. Their notions were scouted, laughed at, and hooted; but they, nevertheless, persevered in conjuring them not to expose the nation to the peril that must follow the fixing bread at a famine price for the great bulk of the community. He and his friends had been left in deplorable minorities; but he had had experience enough of the proceedings of that House not to be disconcerted, because he was beaten by majorities of three, or even of thirty to one. If his friends would now take his advice, it would be not to divide upon this stage of the proceeding, but to wait to see the whole of the measure, and to contemplate it in all its bearings, recollecting, that to ruin the manufacturing interest was to ruin the agricultural interest also. The Secretary for the Home Department had mentioned a great fall in different articles—cottons, Pernambucos, and other things; and the right hon. gentleman had observed upon the extraordinary fact, that there had not been a corresponding depression in the price of corn. The truth was, that the speculators in cotton and other articles had gone wild; and if the same course had been pursued in wheat, the same consequences would have followed. He would not detain the House longer at present, than to express his hope, that when the bill was introduced 956 he should not be called upon to give it further opposition.
§ Colonel Trench
observed, that the sting appeared now to have been taken out of the scorpion's tail; and, although he did not think the measure in its present shape calculated to give much relief, yet he thought it would be cruel to withhold the power to do good which it did convey. He was surprised that no reference had been made to Ireland, which, from its soil and climate, was fully capable of supplying England with corn. There was only one thing wanting in Ireland to make such a plan eligible, and that was habits of industry in the people.
§ Mr. T. Wilson
said, that he had come down to the House to oppose the measure of ministers, but that the alteration made in it was so great, that he could no longer oppose it.
§ The resolution was then agreed to.