HC Deb 15 May 1834 vol 23 cc1090-7
Mr. John Maxwell

spoke to the following effect:—Sir,—In asking for a Committee of Inquiry into the causes of the distress of 500,000 hand-loom weavers, I shall remind the House of the passage in the Speech of our gracious Sovereign, wherein his Majesty says, "I shall feel it my duty to co-operate with you in such legislative improvements as may be necessary to remove any grievances under which any portion of my subjects may be labouring." I remind the House of this emphatic and encouraging announcement, in order that these artisans may not impute any want of sympathy,—any wish to withhold them relief where a contrary desire is not only felt, but declared, at the very commencement of the Session, and in order to let the representatives of these most suffering and meritorious artisans know, that every proposition for their benefit would receive a prompt and willing support and sanction from the Crown. I am aware that there is, in this branch of the Legislature, a real or an assumed opinion, that no aid can be given to these petitioners, and that the mode of relief which the prayer of their petitions point out, would introduce a system of regulation of the prices of their productions and of their labour, which would fetter trade, and not secure the object they seek—"the best wages that their employers could afford, without injury to the general interests of manufactures, and the welfare of the empire." It is to bring this difference of opinion between the working classes and this House under discussion, that I have felt it my duty to move for a Committee of Inquiry, more particularly because many of these artisans have no direct representation, and therefore have a stronger claim to the attention of every individual in this assembly, who has the maintenance of existing institutions at heart. That my impression of the justice and the expediency of complying with these petitioners' wish may have some weight, I shall quote the words of Mr. Pitt on the subject of the Arbitration Act: 'The time will come when manufactures will have been so long established, and the operatives not having any other business to flee to, that it will be in the power of any one man in a town to reduce the wages, and all the other manufacturers must follow. Then, when you are goaded with reductions, and made willing to flee your country, France and America will receive you with open arms, and then farewell to our commercial superiority. If ever it does arrive at this pitch, Parliament, if it be not then sitting, ought to be called together; and if it cannot redress your grievances, its power is at an end. Tell me not that Parliament cannot, it is omnipotent to protect.' The time to try the power of this House is arrived. The petitioners declare, that "it is in the power of any one man to reduce the wages, and all the other manufacturers must follow." No manufacturer will deny this necessity to follow reduction; no theorist can deny it. I will add, that the hand-loom weavers are not only goaded by these reductions, but that many of them have fled to France and America, that those who have not yet fled, and "have no other trade to flee to,"—are too ill-clothed, in many instances, to be able to go to church, to send their children to school, or to enforce those habits of life, and principles of morality, without which this empire can neither be happy nor powerful. I will leave to the manufacturers to say, whether we are or are not "bidding farewell to our commercial prosperity." It appears to me, that if there be prosperity to the employer, there ought not to be such adversity to the employed: let us at all events devote our immediate and fullest efforts to ascertain the causes of such imperfect prosperity, to demonstrate the necessity or advantage of its continuance—or endeavour to make the alleged prosperity mutual. If the nation or the state derive benefit by this paralytic sort of prosperity, let that benefit be made manifest to these petitioners. Let it be proved that their privations contribute "to the safety, honour, and welfare of his Majesty and his dominions." Let them have no doubt, that such sacrifices are beneficial to their neighbours,—that the desire of their Sovereign to "co-operate in removing their grievances," must neither be gratified, nor awaken corresponding feelings in Members of this House, because the interests of humanity, and the dictates of religion, impede the march of sound principles and an enlightened policy! Let us not for some temporary or abstract doctrine of political economy, forget the first and unalterable principles of good government—encouragement to virtue and industry, and the greatest possible happiness to the greatest number. If the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, how much more should any mere human theory be made subservient to his well-being. It may be alleged, perhaps, against the proposal of these petitioners, "that should the Legislature sanction agreements of a majority of manufacturers and of weavers, as to the price of cloth, it would do the weavers little or no good, and could not be rendered effectual." My answer to that objection is, that experience demonstrates it will do them some benefit. Already their unsanctioned agreements—as practised for above a year in Paisley, and half a year in Glasgow—imperfect as they have been from want of such legislative sanction, have worked well—have given greater security to the employer, and better wages to the employed. Nevertheless, in both places, these social compacts have, in one or more instances, been violated; and not without excitement and angry collision, accompanied with the withdrawal of the service of their weavers, and with the consequent loss of their trade, have the violators been reclaimed to the regulating principle. It may likewise, be assumed, that such agreements are "an interference between masters and workmen" at variance with freedom of trade. I deny that assumption to be correctly founded. On the contrary, I maintain, that the sanction of the legislature to any mutual compact of masters and men—if agreed to by the majority of both—would be strictly in unison with the principle of all law, and the decisions of this very House—which rule that the minority must obey the majority. Moreover, the Legislature has already interfered for evil by the imposition of enormous fiscal burthens on the petitioners, not adverting to the temptation thereby given to prefer the employment of untaxed machinery instead of taxed, and therefore, more costly, human labour. I may be, however, told that the continuance of such a system would be impracticable.—I answer, let the less than doubtful experiment be fairly tried. Again, it may be urged, that wages and prices would be raised to such a height, that not only would the export trade be lost, but foreigners would supply our own market. Justly may I contend, that such a result could not happen while prices were regulated by masters and men conjointly, for the imperative necessity of guarding against such an untenable rise would be obvious to both parties,—the weavers have expressly admitted that necessity. Their object is strictly confined to one simple purpose,—that purpose being to secure such wages as the manufacturer can pay, without impairing his sales, diminishing the demand of purchasers, or exposing himself to the competition of some rash adventurer or rival manufacturer, who seeks to force himself into the business, or into notoriety, although either without adequate funds or competent knowledge, and perhaps with no better motive than to revenge himself on a former master for refusing to accept him as a partner. Sometimes, a trifling dispute or misunderstanding, or ambition to be considered the first house in the trade, has induced even highly respectable manufacturers, (for the moment unmindful of the injury their unbusiness-like proceedings will ultimately bring upon themselves, their neighbours, and the whole population dependent on the hand-loom) to commence a career of ruinous competition, by selling at reduced and totally unprofitable prices. A case of this kind did, indeed, not very long ago occur—the price of weaving an ell of cloth was in ten or twelve days reduced from 7d. to 3½d.! What was the result? Not only did such folly create excessive misery to the workmen, but eventually it arrested, instead of increasing, the sale of the manufacturer's goods; because the usual purchasers not knowing to what degree depression might arrive, declined altogether from buying articles, the prices of which were not regulated by the slightest reference to value, but by the extent of loss each rival house could sustain. I do not think, that even the most ardent advocate of extreme free trade will say that such occurrences as these are desirable, or will hesitate to deny, that this depreciation was other than a waste of capital—putting aside all feeling of humanity. We see here the purchaser decline to buy, and we know that no consumer will take two articles of the same description, when only one is required. This is peculiarly the case in respect to muslins, the fair consumers of which will not expose their taste to criticism, by wearing dresses of a fabric out of fashion. No statesman can wish to see a large class of hardworking, intelligent men "goaded by reductions" so originating: he may condemn two coach proprietors who practise such a course of folly; he may think the expression of such sentiments sufficient. But he ought to do more than speak—he ought to act, where the welfare of the people, and the happiness of the working classes are at stake. It is his imperative duty to prevent the possibility of its existence. This lamentable ambition, lauded under the title of enterprise, may proceed from no higher source than an overreaching and mercenary spirit. The petitioners tell you, that this avaricious spirit exists, and that a destructive practice, emanating from such unworthy feelings, is in extensive operation. They implore you not to leave the in a prey to it. They do not ask you to force their employers to give a price for their labour which their employer cannot, with adequate profit, afford, or the consumer pay; but they do ask you to foster their nascent efforts, to secure unto themselves as much remuneration as their labour fairly entitles them to, or as machinery and taxes will permit, and the alleged prosperity of commerce justify. In this request, let me remind the House, is conveyed a mark of confidence which it should not rashly impair, lest, like Mr. Pitt, these confiding sufferers may exclaim, "Our powers are at an end!" Did they ask to be relieved from all taxes on their industry, the fundholder, the civil and military and naval servants of the State might refuse them inquiry. Did they ask for free trade in corn, sugar, woollens, or banking, the landowners, colonial proprietors, manufacturers, and London bankers, who fill this House, might be opposed to their request. On the contrary, they seek to become contributors to the revenue, to invigorate the markets for agricultural, manufacturing, and colonial produce; and let me add, that neither Corn-laws nor protecting duties will give you remunerating prices, while the artizans from Coventry to Perth are restricted to half prices for their labour. They only ask the same protection for their property, which is labour, that you give to all other descriptions of property. Have you not increased the salaries of Judges, the pay of troops, and the value of money; fixed a minimum price of corn, and even on the fares of wherries and hackney coaches? Why should man alone be excluded from your system of protection? Alas! your very scheme of finance is based upon a principle hostile to his interest—as remarked by Adam Smith, excessive taxation (like the sterility of the soil, or the inclemency of the heavens) rendering man, like the field he tills, less productive to him who cultivates his powers of industry. For instance, let us look at the power-loom; this machine, with one person, is able to perform the work of three hand-loom weavers; but as the cloth made by it escapes two-thirds of the taxes levied on articles of subsistence, it gains a premium to that extent in its favour. This premium enables it to work at such terms, that the business of hand-loom weaving is overstocked, and inferior artisans, whose coarser fabrics it can produce, constantly seeking to press into the finer branches of the trade, are ever accessible to the artifices of gambling and reckless speculators. Yet, with that moderation, so remarkable in these men, they have not asked you even to tax machines so severely as you do men, though they had an undoubted right to do so! They put it to your sense of justice, whether you should not enable them to enjoy the countenance and sanction of the law, and to reap the benefit contemplated for them by a majority of the manufacturers, who have the feeling, wisdom, and sense of honour, not to wish their workmen to be depressed and goaded to despair by useless and reckless competition. Undoubtedly, those who live upon the taxes may exclaim, you will raise prices, and our money will not command so much muslin for our families as they now do. I answer, that the value of your money has been nearly doubled, while the wages of these men have fallen more than one-half; and I am certain, that none of you have a wife or daughter who would not pay a reasonable price for their dresses, and scorn, that it should be moistened by the tears of a mother. Indeed, I am confident that there are few of our political economists who would not support this motion, could I but bring them to view the consequences of their preferring theory to practice, and machines to men. They lose the end by mistaking the means of promoting the wealth of the nation. It is not merely vast exports, or unlimited freedom of trade, that give greatness or happiness to empires. It is freedom from degrading poverty,—freedom from its consequences, vice and crime,—freedom from that inevitable insecurity of property, disrespect for the law, want of attachment to the Government, and mutual distrust between the different orders and grades of society—I say it is freedom from these restrictions on moral and national grandeur, that alone can confer strength abroad, and happiness at home. I shall conclude, Sir, with stating, that there are among these petitioners many gallant men who have contributed to raise the glory of the British name—who have planted the standard of their country under Nelson and Wellington, wherever honour or liberty required it to wave. They have never hesitated to risk their life for their native land—they would still shed their blood in its defence; but they think it hard to pine in daily suffering—to see their wives and children losing health and virtue, and in vain imploring those decencies of life which even incessant labour cannot procure. They feel wounded by the apparent neglect of the nation; they think that an adventurous life should not terminate with the loss of independence in the gloomy precincts of a workhouse, on the degrading and demoralizing pittance of parochial alms! Let us tell them we will try to find for them here a less gloomy future, or enable them to emigrate to some happier isle in the watery waste—let us, in the words of their own Campbell, assure them, That when the silent years have passed away. That when the eye grows dim—the tresses gray— These busy hands a lovelier cot shall build, And deck with fairer flowers their little field.

Mr. James

seconded the Motion. Nothing could be more deplorable than the condition of the hand-loom weavers; but he did not think it was practicable to appoint local Boards of Trade to fix the price of weaving, without fixing the price at which the cloth woven must be sold.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

assured the House, that none could feel a greater regret for the situation of the poor people than he did; but he thought it would be extremely unwise and improper to consent to the appointment of a Committee. It would be only leading to hopes on their part which could not be realized. The effect of the Motion of the hon. Member would also be the formation of local Boards of Trade, which would be most injurious. But besides these objections to the Motion, the late period of the Session constituted another. Before the necessary witnesses could be got up from Glasgow, and the Committee be ready to proceed with the inquiry, the Session would be so far over that inquiry could scarcely be commenced before the Parliament would be prorogued, and it would be discontinued. If it were early in the Session, he thought it would have been desirable to take up the subject, in connection with a general inquiry into the state of wages of operatives throughout the country. He trusted, that the hon. Member would not persevere in his Motion, but feel satisfied, that he had done his duty in having brought it forward. He (Mr. P. Thomson) could assure the hon. Gentleman, that Government would give the subject its best attention against next Session, with the view to a general inquiry into the state of the wages of operatives.

Mr. Warburton

did not think, that a subject of this nature ought to be discussed with such a House (there were not fifty Members present), and therefore he thought the debate should be adjourned.

Colonel Torrens

wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman, whether he was to understand, from what he had just said, that the Government had resolved on instituting, early next Session, a general inquiry into the state of the wages of operatives throughout the country?

Mr. Poulett Thomson

said, that he could not say, that a Select Committee would be appointed at the commencement of the next Session, to inquire into the state of wages; he had only said, that in his opinion it would be a desirable thing to appoint such a Committee, and that neither he nor those with whom he had the honour to act, were disposed to object to the appointment.

Mr. Gillon

said, that as not only the comfort, but even the very existence of these poor people, might be said to depend on this question, it surely was not too much to ask for the appointment of another day for the discussion of the subject.

Debate adjourned.