HC Deb 27 January 1902 vol 101 cc1077-83
(11.30.) MR. SETON-KARR (St. Helens)

in rising to move to add the following words to the Address— But we humbly venture to express the hope that Your Majesty will direct inquiry to be made into the present large and increasing dependence of the United Kingdom on Foreign imports for the necessaries of life, and the circumstances that might arise there from in the event of Your Majesty becoming involved in war with some Foreign Power or Powers, with the view of ascertaining what measures, if any, can be taken to lesson such dependence or guard against the dangers thereof. said he hoped that the importance of the subject would be sufficient justification for bringing it before the House. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Agriculture suggested at an earlier period of the evening that Amendments to the Address could not possibly be free from party bias. He hoped that he would not be accused of any Party bias, for this was absolutely a non-Party question. It was also a question which he ventured to think was now ripe for discussion. He felt confident that unless he took the present opportunity of bringing the subject forward for debate, he would have no other opportunity during the session, on account of the heavy programme of the Government.

This subject had been brought before the attention of the House on two previous occasions. In 1897 he moved a Motion of somewhat the same purport, and the Leader of the House answered that while he agreed with the terms of the Motion it was a question for the Government and the Government alone. In 1899 he brought the subject forward as an Amendment to the Address, and on that occasion he got practically the same answer from the President of the Board of Trade. What he now wanted was an inquiry into the various remedies which had been proposed to meet a national emergency, the merits of which depended upon expert evidence. Some of his hon. friends had said: "You have got this matter of food supply down on the Paper again; that means granaries, and granaries mean rats." There was, however, some misconception as to his position. He ventured to say that the argument that this was a question of a strong navy alone was not only unsatisfactory, but illogical. He had always endeavoured to point out that the danger of the high prices that were likely to arise for bread stuffs and other food, in the event of a war, was not alone a navy question. He had never endeavoured to argue that food could not be brought into these islands in the event of a war at a certain price. He had always assumed that we should continue to have an invincible navy and maintain command of the sea; but the national danger would arise from the high prices of the bread stuffs. There were hundreds of thousands of men and women in London who were surrounded with plenty of food in the shops, which was out of their reach simply because thay could not pay for it. Out of a population of 40,000,000 there were 200,000 social failures, men on the verge of starvation, who lived from hand to mouth, and without other means of subsistence than crime or charity. The only thing that kept these men from violence and riot was the police; and if their numbers were very largely increased we would be face to face with a very dangerous position. He was prepared to prove that in the event of a great naval war the price of bread would go up to such an extent that these 200,000 would be increased by millions. Then again there was a great industrial population which was earning a minimum wage of 20s. to 25s. a week, and who could just struggle on with their families when the quartern loaf was under 5d. But if the price of bread went up to 1s. or 1s. 6d. per quartern loaf, these men would drop into the same class as the 200,000 he had mentioned, and there would be millions of starving men in the large towns of the country clamouring for food which they could not buy. He had been told by experts in the trade that in the event of a great naval war the price of wheat would very much exceed 100s. per quarter, and might even go up to 200s. per quarter. In 1812 we were a self-supporting nation with less than half the population than at present. We were fighting half the world at that time, and the quartern loaf, although we were not importing a single quarter of wheat, went up to 1s. 8d. The agricultural labourers were then captured by the press gang. At the time of the Crimean War, which was in no sense a naval war, for our navy always showed itself very much superior to the Russian navy, the price of wheat went up to 75s. a quarter, and the quartern loaf to 1s. 4d. There were riots in some of the large towns. In 1860 occurred the cotton famine on account of the American War, which threw 400,000 people out of work and on to the verge of starvation. It might be said they were provided for without riot by means of private charity, when over four millions sterling were subscribed to enable them to tide over that great crisis. The answer to that was that 400,000 was a very small proportion of the number that would be affected by a great naval war, and it would be impossible to deal with them by private charity.

There was a school of economists who said there was no use talking about imports of food unless we were prepared to deal with the imports of raw materials; but the conditions that affect the one affected the other. To his mind there was a clear line of distinction between raw materials and food, for the simple reason that a man could afford to wait for a year for his work, but it was perfectly obvious we could not ask him to wait a year for his dinner. He assumed that no man in this House, or out of it, could contradict the statement that we were absolutely dependent on foreign countries for the necessaries of life. There were forty millions of people in these islands, and five out of every six of them were fed on bread-stuffs which came to these shores over trade routes, varying in length from three thousand to ten thousand miles. They were living practically from hand to mouth, and that was the way they were feeding their industrial population, which he believed amounted to something like twenty-five millions. The position was absolutely unique in the history of the world. There was no great Power at the present moment nor had there ever been a great Power in anything like the position in which England was in regard to her food supply. Germany, he believed did last year import something like ten million quarters, but he also believed that in the event of war Germany would be practically self-supporting. Her supplies were so large that by slight economy, and by proper management of her resources, she would not require to import in time of war. France was also self-supporting, and of course Russia and the United States were the greatest exporters in the world. He felt bound to remind the House of those points, because they were necessary in order to realise the necessities of the case. Never before had this great Empire presented such a vulnerable Sank to possible foes with regard to its food supply than at present. In 1812, of course, England grew everything she required, and in Cobden's time only one million quarters were imported out of twenty millions consumed, and to all intents and purposes, therefore, England was self-supporting. Not since the Crimean war had there been any war to test the situation from a naval point of view; yet England's wheat acreage had decreased from five million acres down to four million acres, and now it was only 1,800,000 acres, while the population had increased to upwards of 40,000,000. In his humble opinion, and speaking with all respect for his memory, Cobden was one of the greatest political frauds that ever existed. Cobden always said and it was his main argument that the repeal of the Corn Laws would not reduce the wheat acreage of the country by a single acre. He said over and over again that he would not advocate the repeal of the Corn Laws if it would reduce the wheat acreage, and the House could now realise how rash the prophesy was. Never had a prophesy been so absolutely falsified.

He would ask all reasonable men, could it be supposed that other countries were not perfectly well aware of the position of England? He saw not long ago—he gave the information for what it was worth—that France had made up her mind to build a large number of commerce destroyers, and that she was bent in the event of war arising with England on being able to attack British commerce, and British food supplies with the greatest possible effect. He thought that the reason of that was that England was not quite so popular on the Continent as they thought she was, and in that case it was just as well that they should examine the joints in their armour and find out where they were vulnerable, because it was perfectly certain if, by any chance, England were at war with a European Power, that Power would make a point of attacking England's weakest joint, which at present was her food supply. He was not going to argue the question of contraband of war, but he could not find any authority which definitely laid down the principle that food supplies were not contraband of war, and he felt perfectly certain that if England were ever involved in a great struggle with a Continental Power, which involved the extinction of one or the other as a first class Power, that that Power would not throw away any means to secure success. He could not suppose that any country, fighting for a great object, would possibly allow grain ships to pass to England in order that Englishmen might be fed and be able to continue fighting. He thought from a common sense point of view that the question of contraband of war would not arise, and that any Power at war with England would attack her food supply if it possibly could.

He wished to say a word with reference to the reserves of food in the country. So far as he had been able to ascertain if a half a dozen authorities were asked what was the amount of grain in the country the chances were that they would give a half a dozen different answers, and that was a very practical reason why there should be an inquiry by the Government into the matter. At present the amount of the reserves of grain could be ascertained within certain limits. The minimum was one month and the maximum was four months, and his own opinion was that the reserves were more often near the minimum than the maximum. That brought him to a point which he thought deserved consideration, namely, the conditions under which food supplies came to the country. He would ask the House to remember that the food supply of the country was absolutely in private hands, and was not controlled by legislation. That meant that the corn merchants, the exporters, and the carriers were all guided by one principles namely, buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest market. In the event of war would the corn merchants of the country, with three months' supplies in their hands, act in a philanthropic and benevolent spirit? What they would do would be to hold their commodities for the highest possible price, and the longer they held the greater would be the price. He did not blame them for that, it was their business. At present railway rates were limited, the price of gas and water was limited, but the most important matter of all was absolutely left to the play of supply and demand. The possibility of a wheat corner had often been discussed, and he absolutely believed that if favourable conditions should arise, American business men would put up the price against England, and would not hesitate a moment to corner the markets. He would put a case. He would suppose that Russia was at war with England and that, to all intents and purposes, the Baltic and the Black Sea ports were closed. England would have to fall back for her wheat supply on the American market. That would be a magnificent opportunity for the capitalists of America to put up the price of wheat to an almost appalling figure.

It being midnight, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed to-morrow.

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