HC Deb 23 March 1891 vol 351 cc1744-50
*(11.8.) MR. HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

I rise to call attention to certain Commercial Treaties in force between Her Majesty and Foreign Nations, and to the Report of the Trade and Treaties Committee of the Board of Trade. I wish to call particular attention to the Treaty concluded with Belgium on July 23rd, 1862, and to the Treaty with the Zollverein on May 30th, 1865. The Treaty with Belgium of 1862 contains this stipulation— Article VII. Articles the produce or manufacture of Belgium shall not be subject in the British Colonies to other or higher duties than those which are or may be imposed upon similar articles of British origin. The Treaty with the Zollverein of 1865 contains a clause to a similar effect though not quite in the same words, and the Memorandum which was furnished in the Parliamentary Paper presented in 1888 contained the following:— While these two Treaties remain in force the express stipulations above quoted are extended to all countries whose Commercial Treaties with Great Britain contain a mostfavoured-nation clause, and apply to British Colonies. I have gone through these Treaties carefully with the object of seeing whether they afford British goods any special favour, and I cannot find that they afford any special privileges whatever which are not shared by other Most Favoured Nations. So long as these Treaties remain in force it is quite impossible for this country to conclude any special commercial arrangements with Canada, Australia, or, in fact, with any of the colonies. These Treaties do not end, as many people suppose, in 1892, but remain in force until terminated by a year's notice. The attention of Her Majesty's Government has on frequent occasions been directed to the crippling power of these Treaties in any special commercial arrangement which the Mother Country might desire to enter into with the colonies or which the colonies might desire to enter into with each other. I have here an official copy of a Debate which took place in the House of Commons of Ottawa on the 21st April, 1890, and I find that Sir Alexander Galt, the High Commissioner for Canada, in London in 1882, called the attention of Her Majesty's Government to these Treaties, and was informed that neither the Belgian Government nor the German Government could permit the cancelling of the prohibitive clause. Lord Kimberley, at that time Colonial Secretary, wrote also to the Governor of Jamaica, saying that Her Majesty's Government could not sanction any arrangement that would involve the creation of Differential Duties in favour of Canada. This pronouncement was made in connection with negotiations which had been entered into with a view to the framing of a Special Convention between Canada and Jamaica. I do not bring the question before the House as one between Fair Trade and Free Trade, or as a question demanding a change in the fiscal system of the country; but because these Treaties are a distinct restraint on trade within the British Empire. The Government seem now to have departed from the view expressed by Lord Kimberley, and to acknowledge the right of the colonies to conclude special Differential Treaties with each other. The Mother Country is alone shut out, and this is an unfortunate and almost a humiliating position for the centre of a great Empire to occupy. The colonies themselves feel it to be so, and there can be no stronger evidence of the desire prevailing in Canada and the Australian Colonies for closer commercial relations with Great Britain than the fact that the Agents General of the self-governing colonies were, in January, instructed to represent unanimously to the Trade and Treaties Committee of the Board of Trade the pernicious effect of these two Treaties, and to urge their renunciation. On the same day this very view was represented to the Committee by a deputation of whom I was one. It was composed of all Parties, including, amongst others, the hon. Member for Battersea and the hon. Member for St. Pancras, and it was accompanied by General Laurie, who in 1890 brought the matter before the Canadian Legislature. It is an open secret that the matter was debated in the Committee, and, as the President of the Board of Trade stated, he received a Report from the Committee. We have already received the First Report of the Trade and Treaties Committee, and many Members of the House are anxiously awaiting the publication of the Second Report. There may be important reasons why this Report should not be issued at present, but I do earnestly hope, in spite of what the right hon. Baronet the President of the Board of Trade stated this afternoon, that before long he will see his way to the publication of the Second Report. Even if the Report of the Committee does not recommend the immediate renunciation of the two Treaties with Belgium and the Zollverein and the freeing of the hands of the British Empire, I do hope that Her Majesty's Government, especially having in mind what fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House a few minutes ago, that they regard themselves as the guardians of the integrity of the Empire, will of their own initiative, whatever the Report says on the subject, strike this clause out of the two Treaties. I beg, in their connection, to call the attention of the House to the First Report of the Trade and Treaties Committee. It says in paragraph 8— Not only have these minimum duties been raised generally to the level of the General Tariff of 1881, i.e., about 24 per cent. above the present Conventional Tariff, but more complicated classifications have been introduced, which will cause disputes, and, consequently, delay and friction, between the French Custom House officials and the importers. In many particular instances, the duties are raised much more than the above-mentioned 24 per cent., the extra rates for bleaching, dyeing, printing, embroidering, and generally for all processes which involve more labour as distinguished from mere material, being considerably increased. The Report goes on to say— The effects would, no doubt, be injurious not only to British trade with Franco, but to our trade with the Continent generally, although the chief injury, we may assume, will be to the French people themselves. The extent of the primary losses to be inflicted on our own trade, apart from the more general mischiefs referred to in the previous paragraph, is naturally the subject of very serious complaint from the special interests concerned. In various trades, especially in the woollen, worsted, and other textile trades, the representations made to us are that the proposed tariff will, in effect, prohibit the export of certain articles of manufacture from this country to France, and greatly restrict the export of many others. A measure which can be described as having such effects is, as already indicated, an act of commercial hostility to the country affected; and this attitude towards English trade is, indeed, hardly disguised in discussions of the subject in France. I certainly do not see why the Trade and Treaties Committee should have gone out of their way to call attention to the possible effect of any legislation on the French people. The French people are quite capable of taking care of themselves. This is, however, an important expression of opinion on the part of the Trade and Treaties Committee which was presided over by my hon. Colleague the Member for the Brightside Division of Sheffield. They say that the contemplated action in France will have a serious effect upon the woollen, worsted, and other textile trades of England, and will be, in fact, an act of commercial hostility to this country. I think, therefore, I am entitled to ask Her Majesty's Government what course they are going to take, under these circumstances, with America, France, Russia, Spain, Brazil, the Argentine, and other Foreign countries shutting out the goods of the United Kingdom by every conceivable means? I submit that the only sensible, the only practical, course is to consolidate the trade of our own Empire, to free ourselves from crippling engagements with Foreign countries, and to meet the colonies in this matter generously and with open hands. The feeling in Canada is represented in a letter received this evening from Toronto, a passage of which I will read— This is the question of the hour with us in Canada now. We have just emerged from a dangerous situation with honour, Sir John Macdonald's majority being 35 in a House of 216 Members. Having rejected the proposal for Unrestricted Reciprocity or Commercial Union with the United States, the thinking people of our Dominion are in an attitude of expectancy with their faces turned to the Mother Country. What will she do to help the loyal majority here in their struggle to maintain the integrity of the Empire? I do not hesitate to say that from the condition of things revealed by the General Election in Canada, from the announcement of Sir John Macdonald and the facts upon which the election turned, that it is all-essential for Her Majesty's Government to take a forward step in this matter, and to do everything they possibly can to consolidate trade within the Empire. Even if they do not take any active steps towards approaching the colonies, the least they can do is to free our hands from Commercial Treaties which so long as they remain in force prohibit any closer commercial union between the Mother Country and the colonies than that which prevails at the present moment.


I am in accord with my hon. Friend in desiring to promote, if we can, a closer union and greater commercial intercourse with our colonies, but I fear I cannot agree with him as to the means by which he desires to achieve his end, because I think my hon. Friend's proposal would fail to have any satisfactory results. My hon. Friend considers that the promotion of a closer commercial union between ourselves and the colonies is seriously interfered with by the provisions of the Zollverein and Belgian Treaties to which he has referred. But what is interfered with by the provisions of those Treaties is the particular proposal which the hon. Member made to the House a short time ago for the adoption by this country and the colonies of a preferential tariff against foreign countries. That was the proposal which my hon. Friend made, but for which he has not yet obtained the sanction of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman himself admits that, so far as any arrangements of the kind he desired between the colonies themselves or between the colonies and foreign countries adjacent to them are concerned, the clause in the Belgian and the Zollverein Treaties does not prevent them. The hon. Member is aware that when these Treaties were entered into a Reciprocity Treaty between Canada and the United States was in existence, and since then has been passed the Act of 1873, which enables reciprocity arrangements of that sort to be made between our Australasian Colonies, and similar Treaties have been made in the last two or three years between our South African Colonies and the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. So it is perfectly clear that these Treaties do not prevent arrangements of that kind between our colonies or between the colonies and Foreign States. When the hon. Member asks us that we should denounce this clause in the Treaties he overlooks the fact that there are in the Treaties other clauses by which great advantages are secured to this country. For instance, the Treaty with Belgium secures to British subjects national treatment in respect of certain matters of commerce and navigation, and various other advantages of very great importance. It confers upon British subjects the right to enjoy Most Favoured Nation treatment in other matters, and there is a clause which exempts British goods from the payment of Transit Duties. The Treaty with the Zollverein conferred upon British subjects Most Favoured Nation treatment in the exercise of their Commerce and Trade, and there are stipulations upon other matters which are of great advantage.


Will you allow me to ask if France and other countries enjoy similar advantages in Belgium and Germany?


I am now referring to the advantages which we enjoy under the Treaties, an important clause of which the hon. Member asks us to denounce. If we were to denounce one clause, that would necessitate the reconsideration of the other provisions of the Treaties. Before we take this course the hon. Member must induce the House and the country to accept his policy of adopting a Preferential Tariff as between this country and our colonies against Foreign nations. We have not as yet arrived at the point the hon. Member desires, and therefore he is putting the cart before the horse. From his point of view, what is the good of denouncing Treaties, which he admits confer other advantages, before we are prepared to adopt the policy which is prevented by the clause to which he objects? Let him propagate his gospel, and when he has converted the country to his policy, then he may ask the Government to carry it out.