HC Deb 03 August 1869 vol 198 cc1211-4

rose to call the attention of the House to, the financial position of the country with regard to the National Debt, and to move a Resolution in favour of steps being taken to reduce it gradually. The hon. Gentleman said, if he wanted a precedent for his Motion he should point to the case of America. She commenced her late war with no debt at all, and at the end of it had a debt almost equal to ours in amount and larger in interest, and America had all her resources within herself. Our position was very different, for we draw a large portion of the necessaries of life from abroad, our vessels are scattered over every sea to bring them to us, or to carry away our productions to pay for them. In case of war, as Mr. Reverdy Johnson had said in one of his speeches, we should be in a worse position than any other nation. Our vessels would be preyed upon by privateers from every port, our commerce ruined, and our supplies stopped. Now, therefore, when we were at peace and prosperous, was the time to reduce this enormous debt, which hung like a millstone round our necks. In a smooth sea we might swim with it, but in troubled water it might swamp us. During four years since the termination of their war America had paid off £100,000,000 of debt, or at the rate of £25,000,000 a year, and was still reducing it. Belgium was gradually reducing her debt, which now only amounted to £25,000,000, little more than three times the amount of her annual revenue. Let us follow their example and put our house in order while yet it was in our power to do so. The question would be asked, how was this to be done? and several ways had been suggested. One was by converting our debt into terminable annuities. He did not, however, see how this could well be done, and he would prefer to "take the bull by the horns" and have a special direct tax for the purpose. An increase in the income tax would be best, and he suggested that to the present 5d. 7d. should be added, making the tax 1s. in the pound. Including compound interest at 3 per cent, this would enable us to entirely sweep away our debt in thirty-two and a-half years; but in all probability, owing to the increased wealth of the country, it would be paid off in twenty or twenty-five years. As to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's last Budget, he regretted that, when the duty on wine, the rich man's luxury, had been so much reduced, a corresponding reduction had not been made in beer, which was not only the luxury, but the necessary of the poor man. What could supply the waste and exhaustion of the body so well as good beer? Instead of taking off a 1d. on the income tax, which nobody expected, and the 1s. registration duty on corn, amounting together to more than £2,000,000, he would have liked to see the malt tax reduced to that extent. In his Budget the right hon. Gentleman did not allude to the National Debt, making only a passing remark on the floating debt. The expense of the Abyssinian War was probably the reason why he proposed no reduction in the debt this year. It was to be hoped, however, that next year he would come forward with a bolder policy, and say to the House and the people of this country— "Your position with regard to your National Debt is unsatisfactory and even dangerous, and if you consider your own interests and the interests of your children, you will submit to a tax to pay off your debt." The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.

MR. MACFIE, in seconding the Motion, said, he should be proud to be a Member of a House of Commons which tried to rid the country of the millstone that might one day bring us to the ground.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that steps should be taken gradually to reduce the National Debt."—(Mr. Lambert.)


I do not exactly know how to deal with the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, because it really expresses approval of a policy which has been hitherto pursued by this country. The Motion was probably not intended in that sense, and the hon. Gentleman may not know what we have done of late years to reduce the debt; but if I can show him that such a reduction has been effected, he will probably withdraw a Motion which might otherwise bear an ambiguous interpretation. I have caused a statement to be prepared with reference to this subject, and this is the effect of it—On the 31st of March, 1858, the National Debt of this country was £832,843,000. On the 31st of March, 1868, it was £795,024,000. That is to say, in the ten years between March 31, 1858, and March 31, 1868, the National Debt of this country has been reduced by no less a sum than £37,819,000, being at the rate of about £3,782,000 a year. Thus, though some of us may wish to go faster, I think it cannot be said that this great and important subject has been neglected. We have, in fact, been making progress in the right direction, and I only hope that that progress may be maintained. As far as I am concerned, I should be very glad if the House would consent to put on a 1s. income tax for the reduction of the debt; but I cannot say that I think they would allow me to do so, and I cannot hold out any hopes to the hon. Gentleman of such a result. But by means of terminable annuities and of sinking funds we are making very fair progress in the way of reducing this great national burden; and if we can only keep clear of "just and necessary wars," and other things of the same kind, and if gentlemen who come to me on deputations, the object of which is always to increase and never to diminish the public expenditure, would limit their efforts a little in that direction, I do not despair of making still further progress in the reduction of our Debt.


said, that an annual reduction of only £3,700,000 would hardly make any impression on the National Debt.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.