§ Mr. Cobden
said, before the question was put from the Chair, he begged to call the attention of hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Ministerial side of the House to a subject which he considered to be one of very great importance to themselves, as well as to that large class whom they represented both in and out of the House of Commons. He would do so with all deference to them. He had delayed doing so till the last moment. On all former occasions, when the agricultural districts had been in a state of distress, the Queen in her Speech to Parliament had made allusion to it. He had heard but one explanation given why the subject was not mentioned in the Speech on this occasion. An hon. Member of that House had stated that the reason why agriculture was not referred to in the Speech was, because the 186 agricultural districts were not in a state of prosperity. Hitherto he had supposed that this was the very reason why some allusion was made to it in the Speech from the Throne. Hon. Gentlemen opposite might remember that last year he brought forward a Motion for a Committee to inquire into the state of agriculture, with a view to ascertain how far it was affected by protection. At that time wheat was 56s. a quarter, and he then stated that he believed that protection was a snare and a delusion to the farmers. Wheat was at the present moment, at 45s. 7d. per quarter; he would, therefore, ask hon. Gentlemen opposite whether they could justify themselves to the farmers, or to the House of Commons, in coming to Parliament—possessing, as they did, the full confidence of the farmers, and being endowed, as they were, with vast Parliamentary power—and using that confidence and that power in passing a law to keep up the price of the commodity in which the farmers dealt, and then going down to their several homes, and leading those farmers into contracts for the payment of high rents grounded upon that device and delusion. This was a point deserving mature consideration, and one which ought to be referred to a Committee of Inquiry. It was stated by Lord Beaumont, at the Great Protection Meeting, held on Monday last at the Freemasons' Tavern, that the farmers looked for protection up to the price of 56s., whereas the price was now only 45s. 7d.; and the noble Lord made use of an expression which had been previously used by the hon. Member for Somersetshire, (Mr. Miles), and asked "what has become of the promise of 56s."? This surely was a point which ought to be cleared up by that House. Hon. Gentlemen opposite had attributed agricultural distress to legislation, and so did he; but they thought the farmers were suffering for want of more protection, whereas he thought they were suffering by protection. If, then, legislation was at the bottom of the distress of the farmers, was it not a fit question to be discussed in a Committee of the House of Commons? Hon. Gentlemen opposite, no doubt, represented a very numerous and powerful interest; but were not those interests which he and his Friends around him represented, also sufficiently numerous and important to merit the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into a question of this nature? He now rose in his place to propose to the hon. Member for Somersetshire 187 (Mr. Miles), that on this, as on former occasions, there should be a Committee to inquire into the cause of agricultural distress. He was not without hopes that this proposition would be acceded to by the hon. Gentleman and the Friends who sat around him; for he (Mr. Cobden) had had the honour of mentioning to that hon. Gentleman his intention to submit, such a proposition to the House; and the opinion which the hon. Gentleman then expressed, and the courtesy with which he received the communication, gave him every ground to hope that he would accede to the proposition. If this should be the case, and if the hon. Gentleman and the powerful body to which he belonged were of opinion that a Committee should be appointed, they need not go to the Government to ask them to support it; for seeing that nearly the whole of the Members on the Opposition side of the House gave their support to a similar Motion brought forward by him last year, it must be obvious that if they now joined with the hon. Gentleman opposite and his Friends, they might act independently of the Government, and compel the Government to acquiesce in the appointment of a Committee. But there was no doubt the Government would acquiesce in such a proposition, for they would see the importance of it. All that he asked for on this occasion was inquiry; he therefore had only to add, that if hon. Gentlemen opposite had not yet made up their minds to assent to this proposition, he should feel it his duty, after giving them a week or a fortnight to consider of it, to renew the Motion which he made last Session.
begged to thank the hon. Gentleman for having informed him that it was his intention to put this question, not merely to him individually, but to other hon. Members connected with agriculture. He was merely a representative of a part of the county of Somerset, and could not state either the wishes or the wants of the agriculturists of England in totality. If the hon. Member wished for the appointment of a Committee upon agricultural distress, his proper mode of proceeding would be immediately to apply to Her Majesty's Government, and ask them whether they would consent to such a Committee. Now, for himself, and he thought he might say for those Friends who generally acted with him, he could state that they had no intention of asking the Government to appoint a Committee to inquire into Agricultural Distress. The 188 hon. Member for Stockport had referred to some speech which had been delivered at a public dinner lately held by the Agricultural Protection Society at the Freemasons' Tavern. He certainly did not consider himself bound by or answerable for, everything that might be affirmed, without previous concert with those connected with that great interest, by any noble Lord at a public dinner, especially recollecting, as he perfectly did, how exceedingly guarded the right hon. Baronet at the head of Her Majesty's Government was, on a former occasion, in affirming that he would gurantee to the farming interest any fixed price for wheat whatever. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that from various circumstances, and from a variety of causes, and even from the very nature of agriculture itself, prices would vacillate between such prices as those—56s. and 46s. a quarter. Still the farmers had their own idea of the cause of their distress; but be did not think they would come forward at the present moment and ask for the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the cause of that distress. The hon. Gentleman must take his own course; but he rather doubted whether the kind of concert which the hon. Gentleman had offered to him, and to those who sat near him, could be acceded to. He doubted much whether any such concert could be effected. Answering, however, for himself, individually, he might be permitted to say that he could not have the least objection to the appointment of a Select Committee; but he must beg not to be put upon it, having already sat on a similar Committee for two years without coming to any practical conclusion whatever; he should much rather leave it to abler and better hands to state what were the causes of, and what would be the best means to alleviate, the present agricultural distress. There were Gentlemen on that side of the House, he believed, who were both able and willing to state their opinions upon those points.
§ Mr. Milner Gibson
said, it had given him great satisfaction to hear the hon. Member for Somersetshire state, as far as he was himself concerned, he would give his vote for the appointment of a Committee. [Mr. Miles had not intimated that he would vote one way or the other.] He certainly understood the hon. Gentleman to say, he was favourable to the appointment of a Committee to inquire into agricultural complaints, and that he would support the Motion. [Mr. Miles: I said 189 I would not object to it.] He was sorry that he had misunderstood the hon. Gentleman; but he must say, it would appear rather remarkable, considering the experience of past times, if the House should reject so judicious a proposal as that suggested by his hon. Friend. If there were one subject more than another upon which the minds of the Members of the House ought to arrive at an accurate judgment, it was the subject of agricultural distress. In fact, it seemed a part of the Corn Law system to have periodical inquiries into agricultural distress. A Corn Law would not be a Corn Law without a Committee on agricultural distress. They had had complaints of distress under every Corn Law. They had had Committees of inquiry; and was there any difference in their position now? They had a Corn Law, they had distress — why not have inquiry? It appeared to him to be a most reasonable proposition, upon the special ground stated by his hon. Friend, namely, that it seemed to be the opinion on both sides of the House, that it was legislation which created agricultural distress. His hon. Friend thought that it was protection by legislation which did so, while hon. Gentlemen opposite were of opinion that it was the diminution of protection by legislation. But, in his opinion, they would have had the same distress if the Corn Law of 1842 had not been passed. He was not disposed to trace the reduction of prices to the reduction of the duty by the Bill of 1842; on the contrary, he thought it was the natural consequence of placing reliance on protection that there should be periods of agricultural digress. He regretted to see, notwithstanding all this, and notwithstanding the baneful influence of the principle of protection—it was no later than on Tuesday evening that they heard the noble Lord, the Member for the City of London (Lord John Russell) declare that protection was the bane of agriculture—he regretted to find, notwithstanding all this, that the same evil system was beginning again. They had been told by men of high rank and influence, at the meeting lately held at the Freemasons' Hall, that the principle of protection would be maintained, and a solemn assurance was given to the farmers assembled there, that no further attempt would be made to meddle with the advantages they now enjoyed. Now, he really should like to ask the right hon. Baronet at the head of Her Majesty's Government 190 whether he had ever given any such assurance—whether he could, by possibility, have given to the Central Society for the Protection of Agriculture, or whether he had given an assurance to any individual, however high in station, that he would not meddle with the existing Corn Laws, and not diminish the amount of protection which was at present afforded by that law? He had seen so much caution on the part of the right hon. Baronet not to give any pledges as to any future course he might deem it his duty to pursue, that he was warranted in not giving credit to that statement. But he thought it most desirable that the right hon. Baronet should disabuse the public mind us to his having given any solemn assurance to any body of men, or to any individual, that it was his intention to support the present Corn Law. It was necessary on the part of the right hon. Baronet, in order to avoid inducing the farmers to place too confident a reliance on that system of protection which had begun to be broken down, that he should reiterate those sound principles which he had already declared; and he would, therefore, ask the right hon. Baronet whether or not he had given any assurance to the Agricultural Protection Society?
§ Mr. G. Bankes
concurred in the regret expressed by the hon. Member for Stock-port (Mr. Cobden), that in the Speech from the Throne no reference had been made to the distress which so generally prevailed in the agricultural districts. To none other, however, of the other propositions of the hon. Gentleman could he assent, nor could he for a moment think that a coalition could be entered into between the agriculturists and the League to effect the removal of that distress. And further, if the hon. Gentlemen persisted in a Motion or a Committee of Inquiry, he should not support him. He thought that an inquiry into the causes of agricultural distress was not needed. For his own part, he was satisfied to believe that the distress resulted from the changes which had been made in the Protective Laws. Whether that distress would be permanent or not, time would show; but that those changes had produced the present particular distress amongst the agriculturists, he had no doubt. The hon. Member who had last addressed the House, had referred to a speech of the noble Lord, the Member for London, in which that noble Lord stated that protection was the bane of agriculture. It remained for the House to consider 191 whether the noble Lord had not very materially changed his opinion in that respect since the time he was in office; or whether, in proposing a fixed and protective duty, the noble Lord considered that that protection was no protection at all, and consequently whether his Lordship considered, that in making that proposition, he was proposing something which he believed would be no gain to the interest that he professed to serve. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, (Mr. Villiers), when speaking a few nights ago of the increased prosperity of the manufacturers, seemed to admit that to the same circumstance which had occasioned their prosperity was owing the depression of which the agriculturists complained; and then, with the same degree of unfairness, he seemed to contend that the agriculturists must still more be depressed, that the manufacturers might rise. He was highly gratified to hear that both parties were not to suffer together. He was glad that the distress suffered by one might prove a benefit to the other; but let them be satisfied with the prosperity that it produced to one, and not endeavour to increase the misery of the other. With regard to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Montrose, relative to the temptations that might be offered to Russia to enter into a modification of the protective duties, when the hon. Member said, that Great Britain should show some spirit of conciliation by taking the first step towards such a measure, he would say, that in the opinion of many people, England had made a pretty good stride already, and that it was for the other country to take the next step. He did not ask them for a Committee of Inquiry; he trusted that the Government would give them something better. The immediate cause of the present distress he took to be this—that though during the past year there was an average wheat harvest, in respect to almost every other description of crop, in the south particularly, there was a great deficiency; and therefore, since by the alteration of the Protective Laws the farmers could not look to wheat, as they might before have done, to make up the deficiencies in other crops, they were at this moment suffering very great and general distress. He would admit that the distress would not have been felt to so great a degree if the crops of oats, barley, and other produce had been equally good with the wheat crops; but it was not consistent with the fact to say that the 192 alteration in the Protective Laws had not been the great cause of all. He was satisfied that it would not be desirable to appoint such a Committee as had been alluded to, and, should such a proposal come definitely before the House, he should feel it to be his duty to oppose it.
§ Mr. Bright
had attended many agricultural meetings, and had derived considerable amusement from what had taken place at them; but if one thing more than any other had struck him to be unfair in the proceedings of those meetings, it was the conduct of those Gentlemen who took upon themselves to be the counsel of the farmers, and their guardians and defenders both in doors and out of doors. Their conduct had been such for several years as made him believe that there was something rather hollow in the character they assumed. We read in a very ancient book of "dumb dogs that would not bark." Hon. Gentlemen who cultivated the soil, stated that the legislation of that House was the cause of the present agricultural distress. But were they not parties to that legislation? They were consenters to the measure which produced the distress. Surely no proof need be adduced for that, for there was a very large majority in favour of the measure which hon. Gentlemen now said had produced distress. Now the great majority of that House were landed proprietors. It did appear to him, then, that if by their legislation distress had been occasioned, the farmers had at least one claim to make upon those who voted for that measure, namely, that they should either retrace their steps, undo their work, and go back to what was right, or else they should go home to their estates, and reduce their rents down to a proper level with those circumstances which their legislation had placed their tenants in. He looked upon this refusal to inquire with very great suspicion. He believed it arose from this cause:—the public mind, and the representatives of the public mind in that House, were too much alive to allow any Committee to do what Committees were accustomed to do in former times. One of two things would be recommended—either that the taxes pressing upon the farmers should be reduced, or that greater protection to agriculture should be enacted. He would ask hon. Gentlemen opposite, whether they believed it was possible to do either one thing or the other? They might as well attempt to stay the operations of nature as to go back to the protective principle 193 in this country. They had long ago taken from themselves the power of reducing any taxes peculiarly pressing upon the farmer, for in their avaricious desire to gain high rents they had in past Sessions repealed almost every tax upon the farmers; and that which once went into the Exchequer, now went into the landlords' pockets in the shape of rent. Therefore, they did not deem it prudent, or even useful, to have a Committee. In his opinion it was most inconsistent that hon. Members who called themselves the guardians of the agricultural interest, should stand up and say that that great interest was being frittered away by measures passed by the very Ministers whom they had placed in office, and yet that they should not oppose those measures, nor give up the contest as hopeless, and acknowledge that they had been wrong. The hon. Member for Somersetshire had said that the right hon. Baronet, in proposing the New Corn Law, did not propose a protecting price varying from 54s. to 56s. The words of the right hon. Baronet on that occasion were these:—"As far as certainty of price was concerned, if 56s. could be guaranteed by legislation, that was the object of the Bill." That was certainly a guarded mode of expression on the part of the right hon. Baronet when addressing the British Parliament; but what had been the conduct of the landowners out of Parliament? It had been to make that guarded expression by the first Minister of the Crown a certainty to the farmers. Their stewards and land agents—the men who were paraded at the agricultural meetings as tenant farmers, had told the farmers that the Minister had secured to them 56s. a quarter; nay, the magistrates of counties had assessed property to the Poor Rate, upon the estimate that the price of wheat would be 56s. a quarter; and it was asserted that the Government had guaranteed that price by the new Corn Bill. This course had been pursued from the very moment that the Bill was passed; and yet every body who had any understanding at all upon the subject knew that no law whatever could secure a certain price for wheat. But, out of the House, the landlords persuaded the farmers that they possessed this power. Why, then, did they at the same moment tell the farmers that it was from the bad legislation of that House that the prices of their produce were injuriously affected; and that it was from this that they were now suffering distress? The cause was perfectly 194 clear, as might be collected from the speeches recently delivered at a tavern in this town, and by he proceedings at No. 17, Bond Street, where, he believed, the Protection Society had opened a shop. He thought the sign over the door should bear this motto—"British Farmers regularly taken in and done for." It was really time that this landlord imposition upon the farmers should come to an end. What would they say if he told those who depended upon him in manufactures, that he was their friend, and that he would go to the House of Commons and vote for a law that should keep up the price of calico, and give them good wages, and that then he should find that they suffered the greatest privations from the vicissitudes in manufactures, occasioned by that very law? He declared he should not have the face to come before those men, and ask them to have any further confidence in his promises of anything that Parliament could do for the purpose of maintaining either prices or wages. The hon. Member for Dorsetshire had explained why the agricultural districts were at present suffering. It was a very reasonable explanation. The hon. Gentleman said, that the price of wheat was low, because the quantity of corn was large; at least, above the average; sufficient to bring prices down: while, on the other hand, the other and inferior crops were very short, and that the farmers were extremely inconvenienced by the high prices they had to pay for the food for their cattle. Now, he believed this, and that the high prices of the inferior crops were caused by the very protection forced upon the farmers. Was Indian corn no food for cattle; and yet was there not a law to keep it out of this country? Were Egyptian beans no food, and yet was there not a law to keep them out? Hon. Gentlemen opposite had actually complained that the price fixed by the right hon. Baronet on foreign oats was not sufficiently high as a protective duty, and yet the duty already imposed, forced their own tenantry to purchase foreign oats at a price that enhanced the cost of the very food by which their cattle was fed, and by the feeding of which cattle they sought manure to raise in future years their crops of hay. He did not pretend to understand much of agriculture, neither was it necessary that he should in the discussion of this question; but he had read a letter in a paper published in the county of Wilts, written by a gentleman of the name of 195 Mr. Nathaniel Hatherton, whom the editor stated to be a farmer of a very first-rate character and intelligence among that class. Mr. Hatherton said, thatWhen oats were at 16s. a quarter two years ago, he fed out five quarters to an acre on twelve acres of the poorest land, and he had good reason to be satisfied; he had now by him 500 sheep, and he should lose more for the purchase of oats for feeding them, than the protection afforded by the Corn Law to his wheat crop was worth. He enjoyed protection on his wheat to the extent of 3s. or 4s. a sack, there being two sacks to a quarter; making it a protecting duty from 6s. to 8s. a quarter; but he must pay a protection penalty on oats to the extent of 8s. or 10s. a quarter. He considered that the reduction of price on food for cattle by a repeal of the Com Laws, would be full compensation to him for any deficiency of price in wheat arising from such a repeal, and that he for one was most anxious for a change.Mr. Hatherton said, that, he was induced to write this letter from a strong feeling that something must be done for the farmers and labourers, and from a conviction that what was called protection was utterly worthless. This he thought was a sufficient answer to the hon. Member for Dorsetshire. It was true that in the manufacturing districts in the north of England there was a comparative state of prosperity. An hon. Friend of his had stated to him that the cotton spinners were making 50 per cent. on their capital. But his answer to his hon. Friend was this: that the cotton-spinners did not come to Parliament and ask for a law to enable them to overcharge their customers, as he had done constantly for his sugar. But how came it that the manufacturers were enjoying a state of prosperity, though they had no protection, while the agricultural classes were thus plunged into a state of distress? The process was somewhat resembling the action of two buckets in a well, the manufacturers were getting up rather full, while the agriculturists were going down and rather empty. That had been the case ever since the war ceased, when the landlords attempted to make an alteration in the price of corn by legislation. He contended that he and his Friends, who represented the Anti-Corn-Law League, stood in that House, and in the eyes of the country, in a much more favourable position than the hon. Gentleman who represented the Agricultural Protection Association. When the manufacturers were suffering, they did not conceal 196 the fact; but the agriculturists denied the distress as long as it was possible, and they were startled when the hon. Member for Leeds moved, in a former Session, an Address to a Speech from the Throne, declaring that the agricultural distress had not been exaggerated, but that it was frightful in the extreme. The manufacturers never concealed their distress, but came to Parliament, as was their duty, and asked for a remedy. They moved for a Committee of the whole House, and for evidence to be heard at the Bar, or any sort of inquiry that could be had; but the Committee was denied to them. The landlords and agricultural Gentlemen voted against them constantly. But how had those same hon. Gentlemen behaved towards the population among whom they lived? He had lately been reading the Report of a Committee on the Game Laws in 1838. The hon. Member for Dorsetshire, or of Wiltshire (he did not remember which) gave evidence before that Committee. That hon. Gentleman now stated that the wages of the labourers were 7s. a week, but that they were at that period only 6s.; and that from that time to this, the labourers received about that rate. Now, the Anti Corn-Law League had more accurate information of the agricultural counties than the hon. Gentlemen opposite themselves possessed. The League had sent trustworthy men into every one of them; and he himself had had some opportunity of visiting several of those counties, and he could prove to demonstration that the farmers and agricultural labourers did not expend in manufactures, including all their clothing and bedding, more than 25s. a year each. Now he could prove that the labourers employed in his district spent at least three times as much on manufacturing produce; yet hon. Gentlemen opposite did not come to that House to tell this; and they dared not have a Committee to inquire into the cause of the difference. He had heard many and many a Conservative speak with the utmost exultation on the subject of free trade, and tell him that now the right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) had begun, there was no knowing where he would end. They had assured him, that as the agricultural interest by degrees found their terrors dissipated, the right hon. Baronet would do more than he had yet attempted, since he could have no interest but the good of his country. He knew that the right hon. Baronet was not without ambition; he would not have risen to his present office 197 had he been without it, and he well knew the evils of that besotted system which had made the labourers in agricultural counties poor, dejected, and miserable. Last week he had been in Buckinghamshire, and what most struck him was the number of fields so full of ant-hills that no scythe could mow them; this was protected land, and in the very county of the man who was especially styled the labourers' friend, and who recently took upon himself to tell those lately assembled at Freemasons' Hall that there would be no alteration of the Corn Laws. What was the next object, harmonising so well with the ant-hill covered fields in the neighbourhood of Aylesbury? The multitudinous chimneys of the union workhouse. There resided the men who ought to cultivate the land, and who, week after week, were sent to jail for insubordination. He was young in the House, but he might be as old as some of those on the other side before he heard from them the state of things his own eyes had witnessed. One Conservative had actually declared to him that he would rather see free trade at once established, than see the farmers any longer humbugged by the landlords. It was in fact high time that this state of things was put an end to, and he had no other object in wishing to see the destruction of the present Corn Laws, than an anxiety for the general benefit of the whole community. Let the Legislature at once take its finger off the Statute Book, and repeal those laws, and our manufacturers, confident in their skill and energy, would fear no foreign competition. True it was, that if a total and immediate repeal had been granted in 1839 and 1840, serious panic and confusion would have been the consequence; but if such a boon were now granted, and the protective duty of 20s. were relinquished, no such result need be apprehended. Did not severe distress prevail in 1822? yet at that moment the prohibition was in existence; in 1835 and 1836, there was at least as much distress as now, and then that law might be said to be passing into oblivion, which many persons at this moment seemed to regret. A state of things was now approaching, when even landlords would be glad to have the present Corn Laws repealed; they would not then frown upon or growl at the Minister for making advances towards free trade; a population was growing up, for which employment must be found; at this moment they were competing with each other at wages 198 of 6s. and 7s. a week, and, to the disgrace of the landowners and the Legislature, they were in a state of great destitution. Yet, while fierce competition was devouring the agricultural labourers and the tenants, the magnanimous landlords passed a law to secure themselves against all competition from foreign countries, and to keep up the price of the produce of the soil. The population was rapidly increasing, capital was accumulating, and the landowners, without the least regard to the other classes, restricted the exertions of the labourers, and of the tenants, to the narrow limits of their own possessions. He was aware that they could do little to convince hon. Gentlemen opposite; the leaders of parties were not easily convinced; but he had the satisfaction of knowing that intelligence was daily gaining ground among the tenants and the labourers, and they were beginning to discover the truth; they too severely felt their condition, and there was springing up amongst them a disposition which he should grieve to behold were he a landed proprietor. A charge had been brought against the party to which he belonged of exasperating this feeling. The opponents of the Corn Law had certainly told the tenants that the landlords were deluding them by the demand for protection; he had no wish to spread discontent among them, and had never said anything to them which had not over and over again been stated in Parliament. He and his friends had always maintained that the landlord had a right to labour at the market-price of labour; but they had denied the right of the landlord to screen himself from competition while he exposed his labourers to it in its severest and bitterest form. This was the charge brought against the landed interest, and they must not "lay the flattering unction to their souls," that prosperous years would put an end to agitation on the subject of the Corn Laws. The cry for repeal had gone on swelling and increasing in spite of prosperity in Lancashire and Yorkshire. It was impossible to state the sum which the League could not raise at this moment if money were necessary. All the measures the landed gentry had supported since he first entered the House, had been gradually escaping from their grasp, and all those which they had resisted had been as gradually made established law. The principle of protection was one which the Minister could not and dared not defend in this House; the most distingushed man of the Conservative party—the man whom 199 the landed interest had placed and kept on the Treasury Bench—by the whole tenor of his conduct showed that he was abandoning his friends and going over to their enemies. What course, then, ought the landed interest now to pursue? Would it not be as well for them to make a virtue of necessity, and magnanimously at once abandon a cause which they must know to be hopeless? Let them relinquish a system which had produced the most tremendous evils; for if they continued to sow the wind, they could only expect to reap the whirlwind.
Mr. Stafford O'Brien
was anxious to meet the question in the calm spirit which had marked the speech of the hon. Member for Stockport and that of the hon. Member his Seconder, and expressed his intention of not opposing the appointment of the Committee of which the hon. Member for Stockport had spoken. When the hon. Member for Durham had been a little longer in the House, before he reached the age of several Members on his own side, he hoped he would learn that to make a bullying speech was not the way to deal with the gentry of England. He would learn that, whatever might be the varying opinions as to free trade on one side and the other, or however anxious Government might be to steer a middle course between the two, yet that the best men on both sides would deeply deplore a system which would bring to questions of the nicest, calculation and difficult political economy, angry feelings and excited passions. If the hon. Member imagined that he could set the tenantry of England against their landlords, by such vituperation and abuse, he could tell him distinctly that he never was more mistaken, and he would be miserably disappointed. It was strange that in the seventh year of his agitation, the hon. Member—though he had so completely failed out of doors—should not yet have discovered the propriety of a different course. As to the hon. Member's astonishment at the Conservative Members not having brought forward recently the subject of agricultural distress, perhaps the hon. Member would leave them to manage their own matters; and they, seeing how grossly he had mismanaged his own, would not be anxious to adopt his advice. To what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet on a former occasion, he had listened with great anxiety, hoping to have heard some expressions in reference to agricultural distress, 200 and he did not disguise the disappointment he had felt at the right hon. Baronet's silence on that subject. But, of course, feeling a general confidence in the Administration, and not having acquired very extensive experience in that House, it was not for him to leap up and give utterance on every occasion to his feelings of disappointment at the course they might pursue. He desired therefore to have it understood that Members on the Ministerial side must not be considered as insensible to agricultural distress (which, he was happy to say, did not exist to a great extent in his own county), because they did not on every occasion express their disappointment at the silence of the Ministry upon the subject. The hon. Members opposite had formerly predicted that so long as protection continued, manufacturing distress would prevail; whereas it had turned out that this distress was removed, though the protection was retained to agriculture. Doubtless, no system of protection could in the complicated relations of this country preclude the recurrence of distress. Predictions and panaceas he would alike relinquish to the league. For himself, he had never disguised his conviction, that the different classes of the community were at too great a distance from each other, and that not merely agriculturists or manufacturers, but that the richer orders altogether were not fulfilling all their duty to the poor. He was certain that among the labouring population of the country there was much that tended to pauperism — much that tempted to crime. But he maintained that the landed proprietors of England had always proved themselves the friends of the poor, which the poor well knew; and the hon. Member who had been for nearly seven years trying to persuade them of the contrary, might just as well have been at Botany Bay all the time.
said, the Member for Northampton had risen apparently to reply to the hon. Member for Durham, but if what fell from him was correctly reported, the same impression could only be made out of the House which he was sure had been produced within it — namely, that he had offered no reply to what constituted the serious charges brought against the proprietors who maintained the Corn Law. One charge against the law, the hon. Member for Durham had urged with peculiar point, and which became the hon. Gentleman to answer if he had been able. It 201 was, that while the labourers were exposed, by their increasing numbers and want of employment, to a sad and fearful competition with each other, and that while the tenants were unprotected in an active and eager competition among themselves for land, the landlords, who were the legislators of this country, enacted a law to protect themselves against the competition with the produce of other lands, whereby they greatly enhanced the value of their own properties at the expense of the community. This was the purpose of what they termed protection, and from its obvious injustice, should receive some defence. The tenants were suffering, and the labourers were suffering; the one was compelled to give too much for his land, the other to receive too little for his labour; but the landlord procured high rent for his land, and paid little for his labour; for the numbers of tenants and labourers seeking occupation increased, while the land for the tenant, and food for the labourer, were limited; personality was no reply to this charge, or to such an adequate cause of agricultural poverty. And considering how frequently the depression of the agricultural interest had been traced to the failure of price promised by protection, it did become those who clamoured for mere protection as a remedy for the evil, to meet the charge so brought against it. The hon. Gentleman had seemed satisfied with shewing what he considered was an inconsistency in the friends of free trade, by referring to what he called their false prophecies as to commercial prosperity. He said that the League had said that manufactures and trade would never be prosperous until the restrictions on trade were removed; and yet he said they admitted they were at present prosperous, whilst the restrictions had not been removed. The hon. Gentleman should have considered his Friend the Member for Dorsetshire when he stated that the restrictions had not been removed; for, as they both were farmers' friends, they had better agree on the reason they gave them for their present distress; for while the hon. Member had just said that the restrictions had not been materially changed, the hon. Member for Dorsetshire said that to that relaxation alone did he impute the present agricultural distress. In answer, however, to that, and to the observation upon what had fallen from him the other night, which the Member for Dorset had made, he begged to explain what the views of the friends of free trade 202 were, and what he did really say on that occasion. What was contended for, in arguing for free trade, was, cheapness and plenty; that cheapness which made the necessaries and comforts of life accessible to the poor. This, it is contended, would be obtained if commerce were not impeded; and this, in whatever way attained, would be attended with happy results to the people. This, in one respect, has been effected this year by what he termed an intervention of Providence, in spite of legislative obstruction. They had had a glorious harvest; this had produced abundance, which, aided by some facility given to trade by the relaxation of the Tariff, had occasioned the present comparative prosperity. The restrictive system had, as the hon. Gentleman said, been generally maintained; but, through the mercy of Heaven, the usual results had been defeated, and the country had now an opportunity of seeing what was the effect of that plenty and cheapness of food of which the landowners usually spoke with such dread and alarm. That this abundance should be constant was the aim of free trade. This boon of Heaven now conferred especially by a good harvest, was constantly within their reach by commerce; that the blessings which were thus enjoyed should not be interrupted in future, was what the friends of free trade were contending for, but which hon. Gentlemen too well knew it was the object of what they called their protection to prevent. Their object was to raise prices; their complaint is that prices are low; their desire is to cause them to rise again. It was on these occasions they had formerly complained of distress, and in all their inquiries it was this they had in view. They knew by the means which the law put in operation to keep prices high, it had several times occurred that produce had been destroyed; and witnesses, whom they had called upon their inquiries to learn how they could be relieved, had prescribed the limitation of quantity, and had advised, as some said they had practised, that of sowing less grain in order to limit that quantity, which created plenty and cheapness in the market. The distress which hon. Gentlemen complained of was literally from no other cause but that prices had fallen, and fallen because the quantity essential for the people had been more nearly adequate than before. Their distress proceeds now, as it had proceeded before, from the delusion under which men crushed each other by competing for land, expecting to be remunerated 203 by high prices for the high rents they engaged to pay, and being, as usual, disappointed. If this were otherwise — if this distress proceeded from other causes, from causes over which as it is repeated out of doors, they had control, how came it that the inquiry which the hon. Member for Stockport suggested was not acceded to? Why allow these things to be said here, without reply, or satisfying the farmers and labourers that they were untrue? Other causes were doubtlessly alleged in other places, but that was an additional reason why the facts should be inquired into by the House, and the truth proved. He had heard it said, and the notion he knew was common among farmers, that the distress was owing to the corn that had been allowed to come in from one of the colonies. [An hon. Member: Who said so?] Why, some of the special friends of agriculture who met at the Freemasons' Tavern the other night. Yes, so tenacious are the proprietors of this country of their system of excluding competition with themselves, that they will not even allow the produce of a British colony to compete with their own produce. Colonies which they have been willing that this country should make any sacrifice to conquer, and pay millions to subdue when they have manifested discontent, yet, when they claim the right of every British subject, in sending their produce to the British markets, the landlords are so afraid of the effect on the price of their own produce, that they would exclude the produce of those countries. He must again say it was a serious charge against this law that it not only did mischief to the community at large, but was peculiarly prejudicial to the interests that it was professed to protect; and that when this charge was made, with an offer to prove it if inquiry was granted, he thought it would go forth to the world that the protectionists had but little faith in the justice or wisdom of their system, when they objected in this House to face the light.
§ Sir R. Peel
said: I will not suffer myself to be drawn by the example of the hon. Gentleman into any discussion on the subject of the Corn Laws; for we had no reason to expect that such a discussion would be entered into on the present occasion. There was nothing irregular in the course pursued by the hon. Member for Stockport. Nothing could be more moderate than the tone in which he made his proposal, nor did it appear to be his intention to provoke 204 any discussion on the subject of the Corn Laws. I understood him to declare his intention to repeat in a certain contingency a Motion which he had made last Session; and, in order to show that he was acting in no hostile spirit, he invited some friends of mine on this side to co-operate with him in support of his Motion, stating that, with their co-operation, the opinion of the Government on the subject would be of little consequence because by means of the entente cordiale, the combined parties might force acquiescence. The hon. Gentleman, with perfect fairness, stated that he did not ask an immediate adhesion. I think he said he would give my hon. Friends a fortnight to consider the subject. I must say I think my hon. Friends the Members for Northamptonshire and Somersetshire would have done much better to have availed themselves of the fortnight's consideration to talk the matter over, rather than to have committed themselves so hastily as they have done this evening, in their individual capacity, in support of the hon. Member for Stockport's Motion. However, they have committed themselves; but I earnestly advise other hon. Friends of mine not to be so exceedingly liberal, but to avail themselves of the hon. Member for Stockport's very fair proposal, to take at least a fortnight for the purpose of giving the proposal a fair consideration, and then, after a lapse of that period—after having conferred with each other to make up their minds—not individually, but collectively, to support or oppose the Motion of the hon. Member. I must say that the hon. Gentleman who opened the debate was met in a corresponding spirit and temper by the hon. Gentleman behind him. There was a kind of taunt thrown out, and it was with great regret that I heard the hon. Gentleman the Member for Durham, without the slightest provocation, enter into reproaches and vituperation which were entirely uncalled for, and little calculated to promote the object he has in view. The hon. Gentleman also told my hon. Friend that he was not surprised at his unwillingness to consent to the Committee, as it was impossible that he could derive any benefit from its appointment. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Manchester asked me a question, which I think he was hardly entitled to ask, particularly as he has stated—and that without any communication with me, or without any suggestion from me—as he has undertaken to correct the report that I intended to make an altera- 205 tion in the Corn Laws, and I do not, therefore, see that he requires any enlightenment upon the subject. It is, I hope, only necessary to assure the hon. Gentleman and the House (as the refusal to answer even improper questions sometimes leads to erroneous conclusions) that I have had no communication with the Agricultural Protection Society, nor have I given any assurance to any body in the slightest degree at variance with the declaration of my opinion last year. My hon. Friend has stated that he very much regretted I did not, in the course of my observations a few nights since, refer to the distressed state of agriculture. I can only assure my hon. Friend that I do believe that in some parts of the country there is considerable distress, and I trust it is hardly necessary for me to say that I feel sincere sympathy for that suffering; but I do not believe that you can state generally as a truth that agriculture is universally in a state of distress and suffering. I believe, however, that there are some parts of the country in which distress exists, and that if you look at England, Scotland, and Ireland, you will find different districts of the country in very different conditions. I do not deny that agricultural distress does exist in different parts of the country, arising from physical causes, and the failure of the hay crop, and of the turnip crop, and the drought of last year. I say it is impossible to deny that in some districts there is great distress arising from these natural causes, and this I sincerely deplore; but I distinctly state that I do not think the agricultural distress can in any degree be fairly attributed to the operation of those laws introduced by me in the course of the last few years. I do not think that the change in our law has been the cause of the agricultural distress, and I feel bound to say that I cannot look to Parliament for any further legislative interference. I think the restoration of the former amount of protection impossible, and even were it possible, I should not sanction the reestablishment of increased protection as a relief to the distress at present existing, which I attribute to natural causes, and which I deplore.
§ Lord J. Manners
said: I am not a Member of the League or of the Anti-League, nor am I a Member of the Administration who have held the scales so evenly between the contending parties during this discussion; but I cannot resist the opportunity of endeavouring to answer one of the arguments used by the 206 hon. Member for Durham, and repeated with considerable emphasis by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton. I do not think it right that this debate should close without some answer being made to that argument; and I apologize to hon. Members who represent more immediately the agricultural interest for venturing to speak of it myself. The hon. Gentleman said the landowners of England were to blame more especially in this—that while they protected themselves against competition, they subjected their tenants and peasants to an almost unlimited, fierce, and cruel competition, I could say, in answer to that assertion, that if it be true that the competition to which the peasants of England are subjected is so fierce and cruel, what would it be, supposing the argument of hon. Members respecting the agricultural interest to be correct, if, in addition to such competition, you added that which would arise from the introduction of foreign corn? Surely the hon. Gentleman must have seen that his argument was open to that objection; it has been used repeatedly at every agricultural protection dinner that has taken place; why the argument most insisted on upon those occasions was, that the introduction of foreign corn would render liable to great and severe competition the peasants and labourers of England. I do not wish upon this occasion to state my opinions on this subject of the Corn Laws; but I could not sit still and hear that argument asserted in two different speeches without endeavouring to show its fallacy. I wish also to call the attention of the House to another statement of the hon. Member for Durham, which seemed to me most extraordinary. He said that the agricultural members of England saw the prosperity and fortunes of the farmers being frittered away by the policy of the Government. Now, I would ask, if such be his opinion, the policy of the Government being, as he would say, more or less a free trade policy, how can he expect those to whom the interests of the tenants are committed to sanction any further steps in that direction, and to go on to an unlimited free trade? I shall certainly take the warning given by the right hon. Baronet, and not be presumptuous enough to pledge myself to the course I may pursue hereafter; but I cannot sit down without expressing my cordial concurrence in what has been so well and truly stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Northamptonshire, that we 207 are all too much disposed in this House to look upon ourselves as agricultural or manufacturing Members, and too little disposed to take into consideration the more important question of rich and poor in this country; and still further do I express my concurrence in his approbation of the tone and temper of the hon. Gentlemen who brought forward and seconded the proposition on the other side, as affording fair ground for hope that the day is not far distant when we shall be able to meet cordially, and heartily co-operate in measures likely to ameliorate the condition of the labouring classes of this country.
§ Mr. Brotherton
said, that if the noble Lord had taken the advice of the right hon. Baronet, and not spoken at all, it would have been wiser than to have risen to answer the arguments of hon. Members on that (the Opposition) side of the House. The noble Lord admitted that the agriculturists and farmers were exposed to great competition, and he also, he believed, admitted that the Corn Law was made for the benefit of the landowners, and not of the tenants; but the noble Lord forgot the population of this country, and that it must be fed, and that to be fed it must be employed; but it was admitted that the agriculturists could not employ the people. If they referred to the census they would find that about one-eighth, not more, of the population belonged to the agricultural interest. Now, the population was increasing to a considerable extent, and it must be employed and fed. They could not be employed in agriculture, and they must, therefore, be employed in manufactures; but that could not be done unless our commerce was extended; and, therefore, it was only by removing the restrictions on commerce that employment could be found for the people, and that they could be fed. He conceived that all classes would be benefited by free trade, and that agriculture manufactures, and commerce would all be well and prosperous if they only acted upon that principle. He contended that the Corn Laws were for the protection of the landlords, to increase the price of provisions, and to raise rents; and had always stated his opinion that they were most unjust and most injurious to the country. He, therefore, implored hon. Members to consider those laws, and if they were found to be unjust and injurious to repeal them.
§ The Order of the Day was read and agreed to.208
§ The House adjourned at a quarter to nine o'clock.