HC Deb 21 February 1827 vol 16 cc601-5
Lord Milton

presented sundry petitions from Yorkshire, praying for an alteration in the Corn-laws. To the petition from Leeds—one of the wealthiest and most intelligent manufacturing towns in the country—he wished particularly to call the attention of the House. Undoubtedly, the prosperity of the country depended, in a great degree, upon the prosperity of the landed interest; but, it was impossible that any man could shut his eyes against the fact, of which any man might be convinced by reason and argument, that the Corn-laws were founded in error, and imperiously called for revision. It was said, that the question must be settled in one way or other; but he was of opinion that it was one of those questions which admitted of being settled only in one way. So long as a great portion of the population had reason to complain of the conduct of government—so long as the government stepped between the people and their food—he was satisfied that this question could not be settled. The petitioners prayed for a free trade in corn, subject to a reasonable protection, by a duty on importation proportioned to the exclusive taxation borne by the agriculturist. He called upon ministers to carry that principle into full effect; and not to continue to the landed interest a greater protection than they extended to the mercantile and manufacturing interests. He was sure that such a measure would satisfy the mercantile and manufacturing interests, even if the impost on the introduction of corn were somewhat greater than it ought to be. Unless the trade in corn was made as free as the trade in manufactures, the mercantile and manufacturing interests would labour under the most unjust disadvantages; since they would have to compete not only in the foreign, but in the home markets, with the manufacturers of other countries, where provisions were cheaper, wages lower, and taxation less than in this country. There could not be a stronger proof of the monstrous state of the existing laws, than the necessity under which ministers felt themselves of violating those laws by a temporary abrogation of them, when the approach to famine was apprehended. That system of laws could be little calculated to protect any class of his majesty's subjects, which ministers were obliged to abrogate, whenever it came into operation in favour of the individuals supposed to be protected.

Sir E. Knatchbull

expressed his satisfaction at the temperate tone in which the noble lord had introduced the present subject, and he trusted that, when the discussion of the Corn-laws took place, it would be characterized by similar moderation. There was one expression of the noble lord, however, to which he could not help alluding. The noble lord had intimated that ministers had stepped in between the people and their necessary food. Now, much as he was disposed to support the claims of the landed interest, he could assure the noble lord, that if he believed it to be the intention of the government to step in between the people and their food, he, for one, would no longer give them his support.

Mr. Duncombe

said, he had been asked to support the cause of the petitioners; but he never could consent to advocate measures, which, in his opinion, involved the ruin of the landed interest. If his majesty's government should propose an alteration of these laws, by which the interests of the landowners would be properly protected, he would give the alteration his support; but if the interests of that class should not be sufficiently attended to, he certainly would not countenance the change.

Mr. Whitmore

expressed his pleasure at hearing the noble lord state so plainly and so temperately the objects of difference between the parties interested in the corn question. The moderation so strongly exhibited upon that occasion, would go a great way to quiet the fears of the agriculturists, and to satisfy them that the violent changes which they apprehended were not desired by those who called for a modification of the Corn-laws.

Mr. Marshall

said, that the persons who suffered most from the operation of the Corn-laws had borne their distresses for a long time with great patience; and that they now entertained strong hopes of being relieved from the miseries incidental to the continuance of the present system of restriction—hopes which he earnestly trusted would not be disappointed.

Mr. Phillips

said, that the great evil arising from the prohibitions of the importation of grain was, that it prevented manufactures from being carried out of the country, in return for the grain that might be brought in. There could not be a greater mistake than to suppose that the introduction of foreign grain would be injurious to the agriculturist: seeing that no change could take place in the commerce of the country that would give it fresh activity, and contribute to the prosperity of the manufacturing classes, without proving beneficial to the holders and occupiers of land.

Sir T. Lethbridge

could, not allow the discussion to terminate without complaining of the high tone taken by the noble lord in presenting the petitions, and of the insinuations which he had thrown out respecting those who were supposed to have taken upon themselves the care of watching over the interests of the landowners. The noble lord had made use of several very extraordinary observations, many of which he did not at that moment feel himself able to advert to; but there was one in particular which struck him very forcibly. The noble lord had said, that the government had by their measures interfered between the people and their food. Now, he considered that to be a very mischievous statement to go forth to the world, as he never saw any attempt to interfere; nor could there be any attempt to interfere between the people and their food, unless when it was proposed to take that course which would have the effect of destroying those who were the true cultivators of the soil producing that food. If they were about to permit an importation of foreign grain, at such a duty as would inevitably drive all the poor lands, and perhaps, a great part of the rich, out of cultivation, then, indeed, they would be interfering with the people and their food, and plunging one of the most important interests of the state into irretrievable ruin. It had been said, and said truly, that there never was an instance in which great importations of foreign grain were permitted, that the country into which they came was not ultimately brought into a condition approaching to a scarcity. The true way to avert these evils, and to afford that relief to all classes of which they seemed to be so much in want, would be to encourage, by every means in their power, the progress of agricultural improvement. By that means they would be able to give support to thousands, thrown out of employment by the use of machinery, and afford that relief to the destitute of the manufacturing classes which it was clear could not now be given by the manufacturers themselves.—One word as to what had fallen from an hon. member on the subject of the market to be opened for the manufactures of this country by the repeal of the Corn-laws. He had lately con versed with a person who thought proper to purchase two hundred thousand quarters of Polish oats. When that individual went to pay the price of those oats, how did the House suppose that payment was made? Why, they would pro- bably say, in British manufactures. In hardware? No. In bales of cotton goods? No. In silks, in stuns, or any other productions which were fit for the market in the north of Europe? No. The seller demanded and received payment in English sovereigns. He much for the encouragement the trade and manufactures of the country were to receive from the repeal of the Corn-laws. Nothing could be more absurd than to propose the repeal of these laws for the purpose of encouraging manufactures. The only effect resulting from the repeal would be the destruction of the agricultural interests of this country, and the driving the people to look for their main supply of grain from other countries; from countries not yet made agricultural, but which soon would be, and which countries never could become customers for English manufactures. He protested against any attempt to destroy what he must always consider the most important interest of the state.