HC Deb 12 March 1830 vol 23 cc229-43
Mr. Liddell

presented a Petition, agreed to unanimously at a public meeting at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, complaining of the Distress of the Agricultural, Commercial, and Shipping Interests. The hon. Member admitted, that the suffering in the north of England was not as great as in the south, owing principally to the determination of the Coal-owners to continue giving employment to the people, though at a greatly diminished rate of profit. Nevertheless, the state- ments of the Petitioners were substantially borne out by facts. In particular, the agricultural part of the population, as well as the persons connected with shipping, and the lead-mines, were in great distress. The evils arising from two bad harvests in succession had been greatly increased by the abolition of Small Notes, and all the mischiefs arising from that measure were not yet apparent. The Act of 1826 was violated in the north of England continually, and notwithstanding the prohibition, the Small Bank Notes of the Scotch Banks circulated freely to the amount of 40,000l. or 50,000l.; on the south side of the border, the people there, like Tantalus, were placed between a paper and a gold circulation, but had very little of either. To these observations he should add nothing more, as he understood his hon. friend intended to present a Petition on the subject. He begged the House to remember, that if it expected impossibilities from the people, the people would expect impossibilities from it. If Members were not prepared to give the people the assistance which their necessities required, they ought to be prepared to contract their own expenses, so as to leave no grounds for popular discontent. The state of the currency was supposed to have material influence in producing the present distresses; but he should probably be told that nothing could be done with the currency; that was a settled question in the minds of most hon. Members: he by no means regarded it in that light; to him it was any thing but a settled question. It was stated that the annual supply of gold received in Europe had been gradually decreasing since 1800, it being, between that year and 1810, on an average, equal in value to 4,761,000 dollars, while the average supply, since 1820, had only been equal to 1,200,000 dollars; or about one fourth of the average during the former period. He would not vouch for the statement being correct, but it was worth inquiring into, and if it were correct, it would show the origin of that diminution of money-price which had taken place throughout the world. The necessities of the country would, at no very distant time, compel the legislature to reconsider its decision on the subject of the currency, and then it would be well worth considering if the Scotch banking system might not be advantageously introduced into this country, and whether, if introduced, it might not probably lead to increased confidence, and justify an augmented issue of paper.

Mr. Bell

would not enter into all the causes of the distress, but he could not help observing, that they might thank the principles of free trade, as they were called, for much of their sufferings. He admitted that the distress in Northumberland was not so great as in other counties, still it demanded attention. Government, he thought, was surely bound to introduce some measure calculated to relieve the sufferings of the people.

Petition brought up, and ordered to be printed.

Mr. Liddell

presented a Petition from Norham, in the county of Durham, complaining of distress—praying for a reduction of Taxation, and an issue of Notes under the value of 5l.—To be printed.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

, in presenting the Petition agreed to at a recent meeting held at the Mansion-house, on the subject of public distress, said, that the petitioners stated most correctly, that the distress had extended itself to all classes of the community. They state, "That, under the present circumstances of the country, your petitioners feel themselves called upon to represent to your honourable House the great depression and consequent distress that now exists in the mercantile, trading, manufacturing, and shipping concerns of this city and the metropolis, and which bears with peculiar severity upon the industrious and labouring classes.

"That they are concerned to state, that the existing distress is not assignable to any temporary cause, or limited to any particular part of the empire, but extends to the agricultural and all the productive classes of the community. That there has been, for some time past, an unprecedented and rapidly increasing depreciation in all articles of manufacture and products of labour, to such a degree, that thousands of hands have been thrown out of employment, while others have only been able to obtain a precarious and insufficient subsistence." It was not alone that manufactures were in a depressed state; that the produce of labour could find no market, but thousands of hands were out of employment; these disastrous results the "petitioners say, they have no hesitation in declaring it as their decided conviction, are principally caused by the heavy pressure of taxation, rendered more oppressive by the alteration in the currency, which has withdrawn from general circulation, and productive employment, a large amount of capital, and concentrated the same in comparatively a few hands, thereby causing the taxes to approximate to the entire profits of the people, and in defect of profits to their capital, deranging the whole system of commercial enterprise, and paralysing the active industry of the country." They also inform the House, "That your petitioners have to state, that another prominent cause of the present distress, by which these evils have been greatly aggravated, are those laws which they were confidently told would improve the trade and manufactures of the country, by establishing a reciprocity of trade with other rations, but which, as other nations have not adopted a similar policy, have operated most injuriously to several branches of industry, and augmented the public distress, by allowing foreign labour to come into competition with British labour in the home markets of this country." The Petition also pressed upon the attention of the House the sufferings of the retail trade in the city of London, and the petitioners say, "That they feel it the more necessary to make their grievances known to your honourable House, as his Majesty's Government seem to be unacquainted with the real state and condition of the country; and while they have admitted, in the Speech from the Throne, 'that distress existed in some places,' they have stated, from fallacious Custom-house valuations, an increase of exports as 'indications of active commerce,' while it is notorious that the actual value of exports has fallen off to the amount of several millions a-year, for several years past, and have often yielded no profitable return.

"That they have seen with no less surprise the retail trader represented as in 'a prosperous state,' while melancholy proofs to the contrary are weekly presented by the long lists of bankruptcies and insolvencies, and still more numerous compositions with creditors." The petitioners add, "That the unparalleled oppression upon the agricultural interests affects all classes of the people, and to the distress of this, the leading interest of the country, a considerable portion of the embarrassment and losses of your petitioners may be attributed.

"They submit to your honourable House, that the diminished means of the people cannot sustain the same weight of taxation, pressing as it does upon all the necessaries of life. That the present state of the country demands every possible reduction of the national burthens, and the removal of the most oppressive taxes. That the proposed reductions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer are quite inadequate to the alleviation of the present sufferings, and cannot satisfy the just expectations of the public; and it is with the deepest concern they find, after fifteen years of profound peace, enormous civil and military establishments are still to be kept up, a profuse expenditure in places, pensions, and appointments is still to be continued, many of them necessary only for purposes of patronage and parliamentary influence.

"Resolved, That in the opinion of this meeting, the general and overwhelming-distress which now pervades all ranks and classes in this country, who are not annuitants, and who do not live upon the taxes, originated in the long, bloody, and extravagant wars waged and carried on against the liberties of the people of America and of France, during the reign of George the Third, which wars were sanctioned and abetted by a very large majority of a corrupt and self-elected House of Commons.

"The petitioners, therefore, most humbly pray of your honourable House to direct an immediate inquiry into the extent and causes of the general distress that now unhappily prevails throughout the kingdom, in order that your honourable House may be enabled to apply those remedies which in your wisdom may appear best calculated to arrest and remove the evils above respectfully detailed."

The petition spoke his own sentiments so fully that it was not necessary that he should trouble the House on this subject. He could add that amongst all classes of the people there was a demand for relief. He, of course, could not know what would be the propositions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or what he intended to submit to the House for the relief of the people; but he must say, that in order to satisfy the just expectations of the people, the diminution of the public burthens must be very great. The petition, amongst other causes of the public distress, asserted that much of it was attributed to the ruinous wars against America and France, which a corrupt and self-elected Parliament had enabled the Crown to carry on, and he therefore hoped that the time was at length come when the Parliament would seriously think, in obedience to the voice of the people, of reforming itself. He had often heard it said, that the sufferings of the people were owing to a transition from a state of war to a state of peace, and to the effects of machinery upon manufactures. He thought the peace had now lasted for too many years to allow the argument founded upon the transition to have much weight; and as to machinery, that also was too long in use to leave such mischievous consequences as had been attributed to it. Up to the year 1820, trade was suffering to the extent of at least twenty per cent, as compared with its former more prosperous condition. Between that period and the present time, the depreciation could not have amounted to less than thirty-seven per cent; and altogether the manufacturers of this country had, in competing with those of the Continent, to contend against difficulties equal to sixty per cent. He fully concurred with those who thought that many of those evils, he meant the evils out of which the present distress arose, proceeded from the changes in the currency, and he was quite ready to admit that effectual relief could not be obtained by any removal of taxation which was within the power of any minister. It was totally impossible that his Majesty's Government could take off a sufficient amount of taxation to afford the required relief. On that subject he should say no more, nor did he mean to detain the House by any observations on the subject of free trade, or rather what was improperly called free trade, but what was so called was no such thing; it was any thing but free trade. The trade of this country was taxed seventy-five per cent, and yet, when admitting foreign manufactured goods at thirty per cent duty, they were told that that was free trade. For his own part he entertained not the slightest doubt that the accumulated evils under which the country was suffering proceeded from mistaken and pernicious legislation. As to the meeting from which the petition emanated, he could assure the House that he never witnessed a meeting more free from party feeling. The individuals composing it appeared to have been animated with but one spirit; they had no animosity against his Majesty's Ministers, or against any body of men who might be called to the councils of the King; they sought but one object, the alleviation of the present distress, and seeking that earnestly, they were indifferent from whose hands they received the boon. He concluded by entreating his Majesty's Ministers to turn their attention seriously to the alarming state of the country, for if prompt and effective measures were not taken, they might look forward to a degree of discontent and clamour with which they might in vain endeavour to contend.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

bore testimony to the good order and decorum which prevailed at the meeting in question, and to the total absence of party spirit which seemed to prevail. He also bore testimony to the distressed condition of the retail dealers of London, and having done that, he wished to proceed no further, until he heard the views of his Majesty's Government on the subject of taxation.

Mr. Alderman Wood

would say nothing about free trade, and as to taxation, he hoped that the country might look for considerable reduction. He begged leave to be allowed to state, in reply to an observation from the hon. Member for Clare, made on a former evening, who had censured the Lord Mayor for not allowing the meeting to be held in Guildhall, that this was appropriated to the meetings of the Livery of London, and it could not be used for any other purpose without the leave of the Corporation. The Lord Mayor had only done his duty, and the hon. Member had cast an unjust reflection on a humane and honourable-minded man, who was anxious to do every thing in his power to promote the liberties of the people.

Mr. Ward

said, he was unable to attend the meeting, in consequence of having to be present on a committee of that House, but he had every reason to believe, though many persons of much consideration in the city were absent, that, generally speaking, the meeting was very respectably attended; he, therefore, though not concurring fully in the statements of the petition, thought it his duty to recommend the petition to the serious consideration of the House. He could not agree with the petitioners that any portion of the distress was owing to the malconstruction of the House; and he should always be opposed to parliamentary reform.

Mr. Hume

said, he agreed with the petitioners that the House, as at present constituted, was not the actual representation of the public or of its mind; but he should, notwithstanding, be very sorry to let several of their statements go forth to the public as though they were the echo of, or in unison with, the sentiments of that party in the House with whom he generally acted. The burthen of this petition, and the continued burthen of the hon. Alderman's speeches, who, no doubt, had a great hand in the composition of this petition, and a number of others like it, was, that export prices had experienced depreciation sixty or seventy per cent. This was echoed back again from other parts of the kingdom; the hon. Alderman and his supporters all the while forgetting that the raw commodity, out of which these articles were manufactured, had fallen to a third, or even in some instances, to a fourth part of their former prices. The cost of cotton had fallen from 150 to 200 per cent. If only three-fourths, then, of our exports consisted of cotton, the merchant, manufacturer, and exporter, must put the difference between this depreciation and the depreciation of sixty or seventy per cent on the price of the wrought article into their pockets. Thus on one article the total depreciation was accounted for without any loss whatever to the weaver. Taking, however, the average fall of price on all manufactured articles as equal to one half, still the depreciation of price on the raw material was so much greater, that the manufacturer or merchant must always be putting into his pocket a profit on the transactions between this and other countries importing our goods. Besides, when cottons rose, as they did, from 6d. to 8d. to 10d. to 1s. a yard, did the manufacturers ever come to Parliament and beg to be restrained in their excessive profits by an act of the legislature, cheerfully giving that excess of profit towards the reduction of taxation? But it was really a matter of wonder to him how assertions such as this petition was crammed with should be echoed from Manchester and other places, the abode of intelligent beings. Was it that they treated every thing which came from the hon. Alderman as gospel, because his views were most convenient for them to adopt? The hon. Alderman complained, that the system was not one of reciprocity; but so said he; there was no reciprocity in the hon. Al- derman and the tradesmen's system; for when they were putting enormous profits in their pockets, they contributed no part to the public emergencies. He agreed with the hon. Alderman, that much of the present embarrassment originated in the alterations in the currency, but not to the extent imputed by the hon. Alderman; but he certainly admitted there were limes, and this was a crisis, which strongly reminded every rational mind of the imperative necessity of adopting the most rigid economy and retrenchment. So far he agreed with the petition, but he thought that neither the petitioners nor the hon. Alderman had substantiated their averments against free trade.

Mr. Robinson

said, that he believed it to be impossible for the present system to go on without such a reduction of taxes as would raise the wages of labour and the profit on capital. He had no doubt the opinion which he had stated would be forced upon the attention of ministers and the legislature. The hon. Member for Montrose had endeavoured to maintain that no actual decrease had taken place in the value of our exports, inasmuch as a greater reduction had taken place as to the cost of the raw materials, which we exported. But he would ask the hon. Member, whether he for one would maintain that the price of exports was a criterion of the real condition of a country, at least, of the profits of the exporter. He could speak from experience, and say it was not; for he had exported commodities which had cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, on which he had not received more than sixty per cent of the value in return. In fact, parties were compelled to export. The manufacturers were compelled to keep their machinery in motion, and producing more than was wanted at home, they were compelled to export. Formerly, the English merchant only exported on order, now he exported on the chance of finding a market.

Mr. Maberly

contended, in opposition to those who condemned free trade, that since its principles had been acted upon, our exports and imports had annually increased; that the commercial interest had been extending their dealings, and, as he took it, their profits. It was now an established maxim, that high duties acted only as a bounty upon smuggling, and so far to the injury of the revenue. The duties now levied were the maximum which could be enforced against the smuggler and any attempt to raise them would only encourage smuggling. The Government had not the power to regulate prices, and either there must be an approximation in prices and duties in this country, to those of other countries, or the whole trade of the country would be carried on by the smuggler. Government had been compelled to resort to what the hon. Alderman called the free trade system. If, therefore, the Government should profit by our imports, and the consumer have them at a reasonable price, and a demand be kept up for our exports, there must be an approximation to free trade duties.

On the question that the Petition be brought up—

Mr. Alderman Waithman

said, he felt considerable surprise at the observations of the hon. Member for Montrose, upon the petition he had had the honour to present, especially as in presenting it he had not entered into any arguments upon the matters it contained, but merely stated its allegations and among others, those respecting what was erroneously called free trade; which seemed to have aroused the hon. Member's feelings. Whatever credit he might give to his hon. friend for his public exertions, and however he might yield to him in other matters, he could not on this subject, and he must say, that his hon. friend seemed to understand very little of the principles of trade, and to be bewildered with theories of political economy. Having himself, been connected with trade forty-two years, and having been in the daily intercourse with several of the most intelligent persons in the greatest trading community in the kingdom, it could not be presumption in him in claiming to understand such subjects as well as his hon. friend, indeed it would be highly reproachful to him were it otherwise: with respect to the reiterated assertions, that the prosperity of our foreign trade was to be estimated by the quantity of goods exported and not by the value of those goods, however such assertions might pass in that House, they were so manifestly absurd, as to excite the laughter of every man acquainted with business. According to the wild theories of the political philosophers of the present day, the more of our labour we gave away to foreigners the better it was for the country. He was a friend to free trade, properly so called, he was a friend to trade upon equal terms, but in this manufactur- ing country we had only our labour to give in exchange for the commodities of other countries, and the raw material constituted but a small portion of the value of commodities. There was at present a great depression in the price of labour; that was the great subject of complaint, and labour, in all the articles of consumption, was taxed seventy-five per cent, which was, in fact, a tax on raw material, for the labour, with the tax upon it, must be paid for by the price of the manufactured articles; could that be called free trade, or could there be any reciprocity when we admitted foreign manufactures at a duty of thirty per cent, while our own labour paid seventy-five; when other nations would not admit our manufactures in return, and our own labourers could not find employment. He had stated that there had been a fall of sixty-three per cent in the price of commodities since the peace; the hon. Gentleman said, that traders had had advantages to the same extent during the war, but the hon. Gentleman must know that the rise, during war, was in consequence of continued taxation, during a period of thirty years from which rise they could gain no advantage, and by which alone taxation could be supported. What the petitioners complained of was, that by pernicious legislative measures, there had been a rapid fall in the value of property, while the taxes were undiminished; and that they could not sustain the same burthens out of diminished means. The fall since the change in the currency was forty per cent; against this few men could stand; in numerous instances the whole capital had been annihilated which had been by years of labour and industry accumulating. No less than 1,600 bankruptcies had taken place in the last year; how many partners, how many wives and children, might have been involved in their ruin, making together probably some thousands, he could not say, but adding to those the still greater list of insolvencies, and the numerous compositions with creditors, it was evident what scenes of trying distress must be witnessed in every part of the country. There was another delusion which seemed to have run away with political economists. They were for reducing labour, and sacrificing our internal trade, by far the greatest and most valuable, under a notion that we could increase our foreign trade, and better compete with other countries. Sensible as he was of the advantages of foreign trade, still it formed but a small part compared with the home trade; the whole annual exports were about thirty six millions, if they were all profit the sum would go but a little way in paying our national expenses. He was surprised to hear the observations of the hon. Member for Abingdon, who ought to know better; and if the hon. Gentleman maintained that quantity and not value was to be the criterion of the prosperity of trade, he would ask them where they would stop. The value of exports had declined nine millions a year, or about one-fifth on the average of several years; now if this were advantageous, if it were a mark of prosperity, when the value of our exports fell off one fifth, we should be still more prosperous if they declined one half, or even two thirds and he would again ask, where they would stop. Would any merchant who exported twenty thousand pieces of an article, for 20,000l. think it more advantageous to export twenty-five thousand pieces and receive only 15,000l. but that was precisely the proposition those philosophers maintain. The whole assertion was too absurd to be reasoned upon. But he would deny that we could not compete with foreigners. He believed that if our goods were twenty-five per cent higher, we should export an equal, if not greater amount; for we brought the foreign markets down, as well as our own, by the abstraction of gold from the continent by the currency bill, and our impolitic measures respecting trade; and the competition in foreign markets was a competition amongst the sellers of our own goods much oftener than a competition of our goods against those of foreigners. He had read many of the publications upon political economy, but he confessed with little advantage, and scarcely two of them agreed. When Mr. Ricardo stated that the depreciation, by adopting our metallic standard of currency, would be three or four per cent, and when he found the depreciation actually was forty per cent, he threw Mr. Ricardo aside. When some of these political economists maintained, that absenteeism was no evil; that it was the same thing whether the Irish landlord spent 5,000l. a year in Dublin or in England—that it was the same thing whether persons who were receiving five millions a year out of the taxes at home, expended the money in Paris or in London, he would ask what rational man could attend to them; and were not, he would ask, common sense and common experience, safer guides. It had also been maintained, and gravely stated in that House, that it was of no consequence at all whether France took any goods of us in return for her manufactures, or gold; for we had only to send our manufactures to South America, to obtain the gold, and this was advanced by members of the new school, at a time when it was known that South America had been glutted with our goods, for which we could not obtain any profitable return. The petition he had presented stated that the unexampled distress and embarrasment of the country had been occasioned by the late wars against the liberties of the people of America and France supported and abetted by a corrupt Parliament, and now the very persons who had been enjoying places under this system, and had been supporting those oppressive measures, were turning round and declaiming against all interference with the internal concerns of any other nation. He would take some credit to himself for having opposed the late war against France from its origin, and for having brought forward a petition from the City, which was presented to that House so far back as January, 1795—thirty-five years before the time he was speaking—praying the House to disclaimall intentions of interfering with the internal concerns of France, and to lake such measures for restoring tranquillity as might be consistent with the honour of this country. The prayer was rejected, the war was most unjustly persisted in, and our debts and taxes, with our present distress and calamity, were mainly to be attributed to our unfortunate interference; from beginning as accessaries we became principals, and had interfered with the internal concerns of almost every power upon the continent, where tyranny was to be restored or upheld; but now the very supporters of those ruinous and tyrannical measures, told the people that we must not interfere with the internal concerns of any other country. Every where had we aided and abetted tyranny, but in no one instance had we interfered in aid of the oppressed, or in support of public liberty. And what advantages had we derived, what gratitude had we experienced? We had expended our blood and treasure to restore the Bourbons, and so little grati- tude had they, so little influence did we possess, that although we admitted their produce and manufactures, we could not prevail upon them to take in return a piece of cotton. We had set one monster upon the throne of Spain, and another on that of Portugal, over whom we had not the least influence, and all interference on our part, in behalf of the oppressed people, under those tyrannical governments and foul usurpations was deprecated as unjust and inexpedient. The present depression had been ascribed to a cessation of war, and to the effect of machinery; but whatever might have been their operation, that had long subsided; and it had only been since the alteration of the currency, and of the present system of commerce, that the depression had taken place; the depreciation altogether was full half, which was in effect, double taxation, and the petitioners stated, that out of reduced means they could not sustain the same burthens. There was no means he believed of meeting the evil, but by a proportionate reduction of taxes, or an extension of the currency. How far it was practicable to make an adequate reduction of the taxes, he would not say; if the attempt were made they must begin at the top, and go down to the bottom. Establishments must be greatly reduced, and salaries of every description be cut down; without that, the extension of the currency would become unavoidable. It was not a matter of choice but of necessity; the House must apply a remedy, for the same system could not go on with any safety. The representation of Parliament, too, was wholly unsuitable to the present state and condition of the country; and unless some change was made from within, it would, sooner or later, be made from without. It was impossible to go on with a population of fifteen or twenty millions, and a debt of 900 millions, as we did with a population of five millions and no debt at all; this was impossible, and therefore he would contend that there must be a great alteration in the system of Government.

Mr. Maberly

explained, that his allusion was not made to the value of the exports and imports, but to their quality and quantity.

Mr. O'Connell

thought this an exceedingly proper opportunity to explain, that the worthy Alderman's allusions, strong as they were, could not apply to a re- formed House of Commons. Such a House would have prevented the evils complained of.