§ (4.25). MR. SETON-KARR (St. Helens)
said that when the debate stood adjourned on the preceding night he was endeavouring to show the possibility of a corner in wheat in the United States, and the disastrous effects it would have on this country should we become involved in war with a foreign power. He hoped the House would pardon a personal reference in this matter. He had been chairman of a London company for some twelve years which owns a large line of granaries and elevators in the two States of Minnesota and Dakota. He had often been to that country, and he thought he knew something of the situation therewith regard to the grain trade. If a wheat corner were to take place, the company would probably have the melancholy satisfaction of seeing its shares reach a very high price. As far as we were concerned, he thought this was a very real danger. He could tell the House this, that the whole machinery 1120 was to be found at Mineapolis to buy up future grain and store it, if it would pay the grain merchants to do it. They had no lack of elevators, and the Wheat Exchange was thoroughly well secured. The grain men were only too ready to speculate with the necessities of life, and to take any advantage which might be afforded by an English war to make a large amount of money. The House need not fear that money would not be forthcoming in that country in any quantity. It would not be a political movement at all, but purely a business movement for the purpose of making money. They would only have to start the machinery, and the whole thing would go like clockwork. Some three years ago an individual named Leiter tried to operate a wheat corner in the United States. As everyone knew, he failed, the cause of the failure being that he was a single individual who made the attempt at an inopportune time with too small a capital; still he sent up the prices of wheat very considerably, and put a good deal of the money into the pockets of some deserving British farmers. That fact served to emphasise his argument, that, in the event of the Russian wheat market being closed to this country by a European war, prices might go up very high indeed. Captain Stewart Murray had pointed out the possibility of the French or German brokers being commissioned by their Governments to carry out the operations he had endeavoured to describe. But it was not the least necessary for the German and French brokers to intervene, and they probably would have no chance if they did. The American grain men were quite smart enough to see the opportunity as soon as anybody, they were on the spot, they knew the ropes, and had the whole machinery to hand.
There were other dangers which would probably arise, over which the Navy would have no control. There was the question of marine insurance. It was difficult to estimate the extent to which marine insurance would rise in the event of a war between ourselves and a great naval Power. The mere existence of the Alabama on the high seas half a century ago was sufficient to drive our North American trade off the Atlantic. We 1121 had, he hoped, an invincible Fleet, but it was one thing to win naval battles, and blockade the enemy's ports, while it was another thing to safeguard every grain ship and every neutral bottom crossing the ocean, and bringing to this country food supplies from different parts of the world. This vulnerability had been fully anticipated by other countries. [After quoting a passage from the speech of the Reporter on the French Estimates in 1897, the hon. Member proceeded]: Our so-called friends were perfectly aware of these facts, and were probably quite ready to take advantage of them when the opportunity offered. He could give the House an object lesson from the present war. He held in his hand a letter stating the circumstances under which a comparatively large ship-owner found himself in taking supplies to South African ports, although none of those ports are in a state of siege. This man, carrying freight to South Africa, in some cases under Government contracts, found himself—through circumstances not at all connected with danger on the high seas, the only danger with which the Navy could deal—subjected to a loss of £26,000. That was a danger which might easily arise in this country in the event of a naval war. Ships carrying supplies to England would incur the same expense, and it was perfectly certain that the 20,000,000 working men of the country would have to pay the price, whatever it might be.
Moreover, the general dangers of our present position of dependence on food supplies from other countries were constantly increasing. The arguments adduced when he brought this question before the House five years ago had even greater force in the present day. Our wheat area had slightly decreased, and the amount of foreign imports had, if anything, increased, while that coming from our colonies had not increased. All these facts could be ascertained if the Government would grant the inquiry for which he asked. The dependence of the country on sea-borne supplies of food was increasing year by year, and if it was a danger at all it was one that demanded the immediate attention of the Government.
1122 Another point was that the dependence of the industrial classes on cheap, wholesome food had had its inevitable effect of causing a higher standard of living to be set up, which all were glad to see. Working men could obtain food of all kinds, foreign-imported, at a very low price. That made them in one respect more vulnerable, because they would require more now than they did 50 or 100 years ago. In other words, if foreign nations interfered with the supplies of cheap food, as, in spite of our strong Navy, they could do, the industrial classes would undergo greater suffering and want than formerly. As Sir Edwin Arnold had stated in one of his books, the whole globe was ransacked to supply the breakfast-table of the working man. That was the product of our modern civilisation, but the system introduced corresponding dangers such as he had described. That being the case, it enhanced the importance of inquiries into all the methods by which some reserve of food might be built up, or some method of insurance devised by which the dangers of the present system would be provided against. As to remedies, he did not wish to include in his Amendment any particular remedies which he personally favoured. What he asked for was an inquiry, but he was perfectly prepared to support three, and possibly four, remedies which would to some extent meet the case. There were, however, two or three methods which he would respectfully urge the Government to inquire into. Their merits could not be satisfactorily ascertained except by an inquiry with some official authority behind it.
His first suggestion was a preferential duty in favour of the colonies. If we were to get our wheat supplies from abroad, he should like to see them obtained from Australia, Canada, and other colonies, rather than from Russia, the United States, and the Argentine Republic. Without any serious violation of the doctrines of free trade—in which he had no confidence at all—that method might very easily be applied. He was also strongly in favour of national granaries. Some system of storing grain in this country was, at all events, worthy of the consideration 1123 of the Government. The Americans had reduced the science of storing grain to a fine art; they knew exactly how to do it, and they did it in the best and cheapest way. He would undertake to prove before any tribunal the Government might appoint, that the American elevator system was a very good, if not the best system possible for storing grain in this country. The system could be tentatively started, and if it was found to succeed it might be gradually extended, without any disturbance of the wheat trade. He was perfectly aware that a great many Mark Lane corn merchants were opposed to the storage of corn, because they thought it would interfere with their business. He was only indicating that as a line of enquiry for the Government, should they choose to adopt his request. Another method had been suggested by Capt. Stewart Murray in his pamphlet, and it was that they should have a Food Supply Department, founded upon the system established in France 100 years ago, after the French Revolution. He had elaborated that system, and it was well worth the attention of the House. During the time of the siege of certain towns in South Africa, the military authorities rightly laid hands upon all the food supplies in the besieged towns, and they doled out the supplies as required. Probably that was the only method by which the garrisons were enabled to hold out so long, and if this precaution had not been taken, those garrisons might have been starved out. That was the system which Capt. Stewart Murray advocated in his Food Supply Department. The system did not add anything to their stores, but it provided regulations by which this arrangement could be carried out during time of war. The House would see the advantage of action of that kind being taken, and if a naval war came upon us it would be much better to be prepared beforehand. An operation of this kind would be one of very great magnitude for this country, and the provision to be made ought to be very carefully considered beforehand. This was a matter which his right hon. friend might certainly organise an inquiry into.
He did not wish to delay the House too long, but, in conclusion, he would offer another argument. The position 1124 at the present moment was this. His right hon. friend would tell them that, notwithstanding all this possible danger which he was endeavouring to impress upon the Government, they had not altered their mind, because this was purely a Navy question, and in this the Government were backed up by the permanent officials behind them. But supposing he was right and they were wrong, were they not assuming a very serious responsibility? Did the right hon. Gentleman think that the ordinary man in the street had the same confidence in the foresight and the omniscience of the Government as he had a few years ago? In 1899 they entered upon a war which, to take the official view, was going to cost £50,000,000, last six months, and was going to take 25,000 or 50,000 men. If they multiplied all those figures by five they would be somewhere nearer the mark. That was not the intelligent anticipation of the future which they had a right to expect from His Majesty's Government, who were running the affairs of this great Empire. They had all these great Departments under them, and yet they could not see any further through a brick wall than the ordinary man outside. He did not wish to blame the Government for their want of foresight in this matter, because it had been admitted that nobody two years ago had any idea of the magnitude of this war, or of the amount of money it would cost, or the time it would last. Mistakes had been made all through. At the commencement of the war the great fear on the part of our gallant soldiers was that they would not get to the front in time to see any fighting. No doubt he and his friend would be again told that all their fears were groundless and that they had no cause for alarm. The Government would probably reply, "Leave it to us, and we will provide a strong Navy." But would hon. Members accept that statement with the same confidence as they did two years ago? He thought, considering the history of the past two years, they ought to ask His Majesty's Government to institute on inquiry into this matter. Ministers were only ordinary mortals, and they could not tell the House what was going to happen in the future.
1125 He thought he had said enough to show that there was some foundation for the terms of this Amendment. It was a matter of great and pressing national importance, and, after all, what they were asking for was an extremely moderate request, namely that there should be an inquiry into the condition of own food supply in time of war. The Government were the trustees, in a sense, of the interests not only of the whole country but also of the 20,000,000 of industrial population who inhabited these islands. Therefore it was a poor man's question and not a rich man's question. The rich man could live on champagne and turtle soup, and perhaps go to the Sandwich Islands until the war was over, but the British workman would have to remain in this country, and if famine came, the poor were the class who would feel it most. After all, their welfare would react upon the welfare of the whole country. For these reasons he ventured to say these were questions of very wide and pressing importance. All he urged upon the right hon. Gentleman was that there should be an inquiry, before which experts could give evidence, in order to ascertain what were the real rights and wrongs of the question. He begged to move his Amendment.
§ (4.55.) SIR HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)
said he thought their thanks were due to the hon. Member for St. Helens for continually bringing this subject forward. The fact that he represented a large manufacturing community in Lancashire, together with the fact that he (Sir Howard) represented a similar class of constituency in Yorkshire, showed that this was in no sense an agricultural question, and that it had nothing to do with bringing arable land into re-cultivation, but it was a question which vitally affected the welfare and interests of the masses of the people. He had been urged by his constituents to support this Amendment, and to impress upon the Government the paramount necessity of instituting an inquiry into those most serious and important matters. He noticed that the President of the Board of Trade was likely to answer the speech of the mover of this Amendment although he should hardly have thought 1126 that it came within his Department so much as within the province of the Minister for Agriculture, whom he did not see in his place. His right hon. friend had an enormous amount of work upon his hands, and how he could find time to attend to all these other matters was something beyond his comprehension.
If the lessons of the past few years had been lost in any way upon His Majesty's Government, the people at large saw in recent events very serious cause for alarm. They remembered perfectly well the outbreak of the war between America and Spain only a few years ago, and they remembered how the price of bread was increased, and how the price of wheat went up very rapidly in the course of a few weeks from 25s. to 50s. a quarter. If that occurred in a war between the United States and Spain, how much more serious would the condition of affairs be in the case of a war between this country and America, or any of those countries from which England derived so large food supply? The hon. Member for St. Helens said the answer of the Government in the past had been that they would provide a strong fleet which would secure the trade routes of this country. He did not see in his place the Secretary to the Admiralty, but he hoped that his right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade had followed carefully the course of the naval manœuvres which took place last year. In the course of those manœuvres there was an English fleet along the southern coast of England and one of the opposing fleets was a foreign fleet. In a few days the defending fleet was out-manœuvred by the fleet representing our opponents. If that was the case in peace manœuvres it might be the case in real war.
As his hon. friend had said, this question affected the welfare of the masses. The wealthy, whether there was war or not, would be able to provide some means of sustenance. This matter was of vital importance to the masses of the people, and it behoved the House at the present time to see to our defences, and among our defences most assuredly the food supply of our garrisons—he did not mean the military garrisons but the people of this country—was one of the most urgent importance. It would simply show that they were 1127 alive to the necessities of the case, and were anxious to take all possible precautions, and to make all possible provision to meet it. He had no intention to detain the House at any length, because the admirable speech of his hon. friend had gone over a great deal of the ground, but he should like the House to consider the state of affairs which prevailed now, and which did not prevail some 40 or 50 years ago. Forty years ago we had a population of 28,000,000 in round numbers, and to feed these people we required 18,000,000 quarters of wheat. Of these 18,000,000 more than two-thirds were home grown. How different was the case at the present time. So far from our power of producing, the foodstuffs of the people having increased with the increase of the population, our power had greatly diminished. We had at the present time a population of upwards of 40,000,000 people, and we required to feed them 30,000,000 quarters of wheat every year. Of these 30,000,000 quarters no less than about four-fifths came from over the sea. He asked the House to reflect where these 22,000,000 quarters of wheat imported last year for the food supply of our people came from. Fourteen and a half millions came from the American continent—that was from the United States in the greater part, and some portion from the Argentine; some five or six millions came from Europe—mainly from Russia and Roumania; and from our great corn-producing and wheat-growing colonies of Canada, Australasia, India, and South Africa we only brought three million quarters. If we were to have such a large importation of wheat from oversea let us, at all events, do all we possibly could to promote the growth of that wheat in our own colonies, so that, at all events, in time of war if we were besieged, or if invasion were attempted, we should be sure that the export to this country would not be stopped.
One very important matter in connection with this which he asked the House to remember was that of the 14,500,000 quarters of wheat which came from the American continent, by far the larger portion came from the United States. The House remembered what occurred during the Spanish- 1128 American War when Mr. Leiter, who was about twenty-three years of age, bought up all the wheat supply, and rapidly day after day sent up the price until it reached 50s. a quarter. The "corner" which was caused in wheat only broke down because this young man had not sufficient capital. Lord Playfair, who was formerly Chairman of Committees in this House, bore a name which would always carry respect. He had studied this question very carefully and he stated that in less than twenty years America would have no surplus food to send. [An HON. MEMBER: What is the date of that? The statement was made by Lord Playfair seven or eight years ago, not casually in the course of debate but in a carefully thought out lecture after he had studied the whole question in the United States. According to that, the American wheat supply was likely to fail us in twelve or fifteen years. The Government should not leave these matters to chance, but should see where the wheat supply for this country was to come from. There could be no question that, if we were to get into hostilities with the United States or Russia, and the export of wheat from those countries was forbidden, we should be in a serious position at the present time. He deeply regretted that nothing had been done to restore agriculture in this country to the position it used to hold. He was not interested personally in agriculture, nor were his constituents. He supported the Amendment solely on the ground that the question was one of vital interest for the welfare of the people. They were grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Monmouthshire, for setting a good example to the Treasury Bench by being present to hear the arguments brought forward by the hon. Member for St. Helens He could not understand where the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture could possibly be. He ought to be in his place here.
It was absolutely essential at the present time, with the condition of affairs which we found on the Continent of Europe, and when we found ourselves reduced to a bare two months food supply in this country, 1129 to set ourselves to work while there was peace, to see what we should do if we were at war with France or Germany, or any great continental Power. He did not say it was likely in the immediate future, but there were possibilities, and a Government which had the slightest care for the future interest of the people, were bound to look at these things. At the beginning of last century, when the invasion of this country was contemplated by Napoleon the Great, we had food reserves in the country which would have enabled us to hold out for forty weeks. That was not a great length of time, but it was better than sixty days, which was the estimated time at present. He expected some interesting observations on this subject from the right hon. Member for Sleaford, who was formerly Minister of Agriculture. He would be able to state exactly what the food reserves of this country were. If we had only sixty days' supply, we were face to face with a very serious condition of things. It was a condition of things perfectly well known to the ministries of war and admiralty of every continental Power. If the Government said that there was no necessity for inquiry, and that we would trust to the law of supply and demand, and to the enormous price we would be able to pay in time of war, then he thought they were living absolutely in a fools' paradise, and did not realise the danger. The hon Member for St. Helens did not bring forward the Amendment in hostility to the Government in any shape or form; he simply asked for inquiry.
Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question, to add the words,—
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 lessen such dependence or guard against the dangers thereof."—(Mr. Seton-Karr).
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there added."
§ *(5.15.) MR. M. WHITE RIDLEY (Stalybridge)
I do not offer any apol- 1130 ogies for speaking on a subject which is of great importance to every Member of this House, and every person of British nationality. In regard to the main proposition, which has been advanced by the hon. Member for St. Helens, there can be no room for doubt as to our dependence on foreign nations, and other countries, for our food supply. The acreage in this country under wheat cultivation has decreased in thirty years from five million to two million acres, and the wheat produced here is consequently very small. There is also no doubt that the imports of wheat from foreign nations in the same period has increased from seven millions of quarters to sixteen millions of quarters. These are facts we have got to take as we find them, and to seek some means to remedy. I submit that though we may be in danger as regards our dependence on foreign countries for our food supply, the proper way to meet it is by safeguarding our interests by the fleet of this country. In fact, the question as to what we should do now is hardly one for which we can find a parallel in modern times. I have been at some pains to discover what parallel there is for the erection of granaries, as has been urged by the hon. Member for St. Helens, and I find there was a case where granaries were established by a Minister of very old date. That was a Minister in Egypt, his name was Joseph—a very, very old name. When he saved his country in that way, it is on record that Joseph feathered not only his own nest, but that of his master. Pharaoh, with the result that the whole country belonged to him and his master between them. That story had a very slight bearing on the present question. However, I cannot find a real precedent for the establishment of granaries which would lead us to think it would be of advantage to this country to follow.
The hon. Member for St. Helen's says that we stand in a position which no other nation has occupied in regard to this question of food supply. With all deference to him, I hardly think that that is quite the case. There was a great empire—the Empire of Rome—which, in many respects, and especially in this respect of dependence on foreign nations for a 1131 food supply, which affords very much of a parallel to our own case. Rome was, as ours is, an empire worked from a small country, but which controlled enormous tracts of land—a country which supplied very little corn, and which depended upon the enormous corn-supplies of Egypt and other contiguous countries. We are consequently not the only nation which has had to rely on other supplies than our own. Now, when the end of the Roman Empire came, it was not because it had to depend upon foreign nations in time of war for its food supply. Rome fell through the inherent rottenness of its ruling classes (and of that we are in no danger in this country) and because she depended on other nations for the supply of the material which should make a nation. I submit that we have the advantage of Rome in that matter, and further, that we have the advantage of Rome in the gradual and quickly increasing reliance that can be placed on our colonies for the food supplied that can be obtained from them. The supply of wheat from our colonies amounts now to seventeen million cwts., while forty-nine million cwts. come from foreign countries; but every year the supply from our colonies on which we can rely is increasing, and the large and fertile prairies of Canada and plains of Australia, and those of that great friendly Anglo-Saxon nation of America which contributes more and more to our food supply.
I come now to what I really believe to be the point of this matter; that is, our control of the sea, and the money which we put into the control of the sea. We must look rather to that than to establishing State-aided granaries. We should rather aim at establishing a "corner" in ships than a "corner" in corn. The hon. Member for St. Helens said he took it as an assumption that we should never lose the command of the sea, and that out fleet was invincible. I would not like to go so far as that. I think if we did, we should be living in a fools' paradise; but it behoves us to see that the insurance we pay in the shape of providing a sufficient fleet to safeguard our interests should be a 1132 large one and sufficient for the purpose. Putting it shortly, I should say that if our Fleet is perfect and is sufficient to safeguard our interests, we have no need of establishing granaries in this country; but I also say that it would be a perfectly reasonable conclusion for hon. Members to draw, that if we established granaries it would be a proper thing to reduce the insurance money which we pay on our Fleet. I should think that the hon. Member for Northampton would be willing on these conditions to vote for this Amendment if it meant a reduction of the Fleet. I appeal to the House that hon. Members would be well-advised to pay the money to provide the guarantee for securing our food-supply from other nations rather than in artificially making that supply. I think that the question might be elaborated by the quotation of statistics, but I do not want to trespass further on the time of the House.
§ *(5.23.) SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)
It has been a great pleasure to me to hear, on his first appearance in our debates, our friend who has just down. It is a still greater pleasure to me that I agree with the sentiments he has expressed. I have listened to my hon. friend who moved this Motion, and to the hon. Member for Central Sheffield, but I confess I cannot understand what they can allege in favour of the proposition contained in the Amendment. When I hear the hon. Member who moved this Motion talk of the dangers of "corners" in America, does he really propose that His Majesty's Government should undertake the operation of fighting "corners" in corn? A more risky proposal than that I cannot conceive. Let us see what it means! It means this, that you are to buy up corn—he does not say at what price—a great many millions of quarters of corn in order I suppose, that if a "corner" was made in America you would let the corn out and knock down the price. A more unbusinesslike proceeding I cannot conceive. I know what has happened with "corners" According to my observation and experience no man who ever tried a "corner" ever failed to come to grief. A proposal more incapable of being supported by the English Government I cannot understand, than that the Govern- 1133 ment should expend millions and millions of money on which no interest would he paid. Here you have these great granaries which have cost you millions, and your stocks. And there are the stocks lying dead and idle in order that you may take your chance of running against a "corner" I think we are a business assembly and we may therefore dismiss the "corner."
Well, the hon. Member for Central Sheffield has advanced some arguments which seem to me to contradict one another. He is dreadfully afraid of a passage which he read out from a lecture delivered by the late Lord Playfair, in which it was stated that America, I understand, twenty years hence would not be able to export meat, because it would consume all its own meat. That would be a very satisfactory expectation to the cohorts of Protectionists I see before me. It is said—"Oh! you will have such risk in time of war because the cargoes of wheat which are coming from abroad will be at the risk of being intercepted by the foreign enemy." Now, there is a great deal of delusion on this subject. It is supposed that the wheat from America under those circumstances would be consigned to England direct. It would not be consigned to England at all. It would be consigned to Continental neutral ports, and no foreign enemy would dare to face the neutral world by attacking bona fide neutral consignment to neutral ports. It would go to Antwerp where it could not be touched or interfered with by a hostile fleet. Any voyage which it would have to make, exposed to risk, would be from Antwerp to England—or in crossing the narrow channel from Antwerp or a port in Holland to Dover. Does it seem worth while for a speculation of this kind to go into these enormous purchases, to pile up this great investment of capital? Any hon. Member who brings such a proposal before such an assembly of commercial business men, as I believe the House of Commons to be, ought to be prepared to furnish some idea of the sum of money he is going to lock up in this way. Suppose at the end of five years you have war?
§ MR. SETON-KARR
said that he thought that he had made his proposal quite clear. What he was asking for all 1134 the way through was an inquiry, and he had particularly said that he did not wish to go into details of that kind.
§ * SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
The hon. Gentleman was very wise and very judicious when he suggested that the details were unimportant, but the detail in question is of extreme importance if there is to be invested millions upon millions in a speculation of this kind. To my mind such a speculation would be an insane thing upon the part of any responsible Government. Let us see what will be the effect when you have got this stock—and I observe the Motion of the hon. Member applies to every sort of provision, beef, bacon, mutton, and other things, as well as wheat, and you must have a store of those things, of which a large proportion now comes from abroad, but which he says will then come from our colonies—If you get corn in time of war from Canada in British ships it is at greater risk than if you get it from United States, because it is there a belligerent cargo, whereas if it comes from the United States, to Belgium, France, or Holland, it would be a neutral cargo going to a neutral port, and it would not be at any risk until it got to the neutral port, within a few miles of our own shores, from which it would be shipped to us; but if it come from Canada of course it is a British cargo, and therefore liable to capture over the whole of the Atlantic.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
Because the Declaration of Paris covers it. The right hon. Gentleman is quite aware that the Declaration of Paris lays it down that a neutral flag covers a belligerent cargo.
§ * SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
My hon. friend is quite right because one of the things that would occur in the case of war would be that the flag would be changed at once and the cargo would be protected by the neutral flag, except in the case of contraband. It has, however, been suggested that provisions 1135 might be declared to be contraband by the belligerent power—a thing which the neutrals would never allow—but if that ever occurred the goods would be consigned not to this country direct but to some neighbouring neutral country, in which case they could in no event be treated as contraband, for goods having a neutral destination cannot be treated as contraband. One part of his proposition, which I venture to criticise, I have not heard advocated except by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sheffield, the great champion of protection in this House, and I shall be a little surprised if the advocates of this Motion are not found to be, gentlemen with a natural feeling towards protection, because that, of course, is what a Motion of this kind means. What would be the effect of the proposal that these stores were to come exclusively from our own colonies? Of course it means that wheat would have to be bought at a higher price because it would knock out of the markets many sources of supply, and the result would be to greatly enhance the price of the produce of these limited markets. Then it was said that it was for the purpose of "encouraging the growth of wheat." Encouraging the growth means that you get more than the natural price for the produce. If natural prices would encourage growth then growth is encouraged now, but that is not so. It would very greatly enhance the price you would have to pay for these stores. I do not know whether people have arrived at a state of opinion, and I sometimes think they have, when they think they cannot be happy without a war. That is not my opinion. Just as happened after the Crimean war, so there will be, I believe, after this war an earnest desire in this country for peace. Will anybody try and calculate what would be this loss to the nation if enormous food supplies had been locked up in the national granaries for the fifty years which have nearly expired since the Crimean war? Why, the National Debt would be a joke to it! It is contended that the proposal would be for the advantage of the working classes. But, from its very nature, the proposal must mean a rise in the price of corn; and how is that going to advantage 1136 the working classes? Has anybody endeavoured to form an opinion of what the position will be? You cannot keep corn for fifty years. The Government would have to lock up stores of corn year after year, and they must be always buying and selling. Fancy an English Government becoming a speculator in corn! They would have to buy at a particular price—it might be a high price. Corn cannot be kept a long time without deteriorating. Therefore they would sell it. But by that time the price might have fallen very much, and thus they would be constantly losing a great deal of money upon their transactions. This is not a case of providing for a garrison. It is a case of provisioning a people of forty millions, and all this on the speculation that at some time or other in the future there might be a "corner" or a war. What is the use of embarking upon wild speculations for risks—which I can only call "fears of the brave and follies of the wise"—of going into a rash gamble that has no justification in any example in the world? I have listened with all respect and attention to all the arguments adduced, and I have not heard a single one which seemed to me capable of being supported; and having regard to the importance of the Motion, and to the many speeches that will be and have been made; I think I have said enough.
§ (5.42.) COLONEL KENYON-SLANEY (Shropshire, Newport)
said he did not gather from the mover of the Amendment any such suggestion as that which the right hon. Gentleman opposite had thought fit to criticise so severely. He gathere that the main desire of both mover and seconder—and with that he cordially agreed—was that some cognisance should be taken by the Government of this question which was not an academic one, or one the consideration of which could be much longer postponed, but was one on which a great mass of the country and the empire thought very strongly, really, and earnestly. He would therefore pass over the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, which merely consisted of demolishing a phantom which did not exist. There seemed to be among the opponents to the Amendment two lines of thought, the argu- 1137 ments in support of which were pressed home with great insistence, One was that so long as our fleet was intact and stood in its present relation to the fleets of other nations there was no danger, and that no fuss need therefore be made about the matter. The other line of argument was that, if the fleet failed, supposing one could conceive such a thing to be possible and our ports were blockaded, then there was no longer anything to fight for, and we might chuck up the sponge and take up our position as a conquered country. He did not take objection to the first line of argument, but with regard to the second, let the House, if possible, conceive that the fleet had failed; that a foreign combination for the time being had command of the sea; and that the ports of entry to this country were blockaded. It did not follow then that the second line of argument should be accepted, it could only be accepted if it was conceded that the country was to have no storage of food supplies; but granting the position so far that our ports were blockaded, all the power and energy of the country would be put forward to restore and repair the fleet in order to break the blockade. It was not possible to suppose that other nations could have effected a blockade without their fleets having suffered considerably in the actions which would have preceded the blockade, and all our energies would be devoted to restoring as rapidly as possible the powers of resistance and opposition. But the main condition underlying all that—the only thing which would give us a chance of recuperating, would be the certainty that for a definite number of months we could feed the people upon whose energies we depended to put us again in a position of power. He, therefore, thought the second line of argument was an unworthy one, and should never issue from the lips of Ministers or lovers of their country. The House ought to recognise the patriotic intention of the hon. Member for St. Helens in bringing forward this Amendment. Those who supported the Amendment were not putting forward any particular suggestion or plan, but the various suggestions came from those who thought earnestly upon the question and who believed that their suggestion 1138 was the best way of carrying out the object in view. They all recognised that there were two supplies which were absolutely necessary for our continued resistance in such circumstances and for the continued maintenance of our position in any circumstances. One supply was that of food, and the other was the supply of men; and after all the various schemes had been examined they would all revert to this proposal, that the best way to secure a good and appropriate supply of food in this country was that it should be grown within the limits of these islands, and when they considered that the same process which would develop the home industry would also tend to increase the supply of the class of men we required to defend us. He thought, so far as possible, the Government would recognise that probably they had their best chance of satisfying the country while making any movement in the direction of finding a necessary food supply produced at home, in gaining at the same time the supply of men needed.
§ (5 48.) MAJOR RASCH (Essex, Chelmsford)
thought that the thanks of the public were due to the hon. Member for St. Helens for having brought this subject forward. After all it was, at any rate, quite as important as the discussion whether the people should pay the fraction of a farthing more or less for their telephone service. He did not think anyone could suggest that the present system by which this country would be fed in the event of war was an unimportant question and that its present condition did not leave a good deal to be desired. In his opinion granaries were not practicable in this country, because owing to our detestable climate it was impossible to keep wheat sound and hard when stored, the dressing and constant turning over that it would require would make such a thing impossible. Granaries had been tried with success in North America, Hungary, and as the hon. Member said about 4,000 years ago by an energetic Minister of Agriculture in Egypt; but the House must recognise the difference of the climatic conditions existing in those countries and in Great Britain. In an interesting letter to The Times the hon. Member for Basingstoke advocated the keeping of wheat in stacks, 1139 paying the farmer a bonus for doing so. That was what farmers used to do in the eastern counties in the old days, but since 1879 they had been compelled to thresh out the rent as soon as they got the wheat in stack, but no doubt there was something in the hon. Member's suggestion. The right hon. Gentleman opposite had referred to the cohorts of Protection. There was a letter in The Times a month ago written by an old friend of the House—Mr. Albert Pell. Mr. Pell had always been a strong Free-trader, but now his words were "needs must when the devil drives" and "circumstances altered cases." Mr. Pell, in these circumstances, thought that it would be advisable to put a duty on flour, and that wheat should be admitted free. By that means Mr. Pell thought that farmers would be induced to grow wheat instead of letting their fields go down to rough grass as was now so often the case. There was an objection to that proposal which he thought the Government would find it difficult to surmount. It lay in the word "Protection" When hon. Members spoke with an agricultural labourer on the subject, it would be found that some of these men remembered the days of Protection, when the quartern loaf was at 8d.; and these labourers said that they did not wish to see those days restored. He was aware that the hon. Member for Central Sheffield could easily demolish the argument if he had the chance, but there was only one hon. Member for Central Sheffield—there were millions of agricultural labourers. His own idea was that the way to solve this question was by supporting the agricultural interest. Though he was not a Protectionist, he failed to see why we should not have a shilling registration duty. It would produce 2½ millions, and he would give that sum towards reducing the rates on agricultural land. The farmers should be encouraged to lay down wheat on their lands. In the eastern counties there were thousands of acres derelict, and villages full of old women and boys. Land was selling at £2 18s. an acre, and not 200 acres were being cultivated out of every 1,000 acres. The only things grown appeared to be barbed wire and corrugated roofing. The only way to correct this state of things was to back us and support the agricultural interest, and if, as an agricultural man, by so doing he could at the same time assist the country 1140 in obliging a food supply in time of war' he felt he would have done his duty.
§ *(5.58) MR. JEFFREYS (Hampshire, N.)
said his hon. friend had referred to his scheme of keeping wheat in the country. He quite agreed with what the right hon. Member for West Monmouthshire had said about granaries, and the buying and selling of wheat, and he thought it would be an enormous undertaking, a very costly one—and at the same time it would not have the desired effect. Because wheat was a very difficult article to keep, it would have to be turned constantly, and in the large granaries they would have to have expensive and powerful machinery for that purpose in order to keep it sound. A proposal which he had made, and which he regarded as reasonable, was that of keeping the supply of wheat in this country in the ricks in which it was put when harvested. It was often the practice in former years for farmers to keep a rick for sometimes one year, and sometimes two, and that was because very often when wheat was harvested it was not in a fit state to be milled, and only became fit for use after the east winds had gone through the ricks in March and thoroughly dried it. His suggestion was that the farmers should be induced to keep their wheat in the stack. The War Office had for years paid to certain omnibus and tramway proprietors 10s. a head on a number of horses in order that they might be able to appropriate those horses in time of necessity; that system had been found very useful during the present war. Why should not ricks of wheat be subsidised in the same way?
§ * MR. JEFFREYS
I will come to that. Farmers could not be expected to keep the wheat for nothing. Under such a system there would be no expenditure on public granaries, or on people to turn the wheat, or on buying and selling and thus upsetting the market. The wheat would be kept in the natural course of events. As to the cost of keeping it, there wouldbe, in the first place, a certain loss of interest to the farmer by keeping his wheat instead of selling it immediately it 1141 was harvested. That would be worth quite 2s. a quarter.
§ SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
asked whether, if the price of wheat was particularly high, 2s. a quarter would induce a farmer to keep his wheat.
§ * MR. JEFFREYS
thought that in many cases a great deal of wheat was not fit to thresh directly after harvest. Generally, the end of our summers were damp, and wheat was damp and had to be kept. Even though the price was high, the farmer would hope that in the next year it would be still higher. It was only because of the large importation of wheat that the future price of wheat was such a pure speculation. In addition to the 2s. for interest, there should be another 2s. per quarter for loss by vermin, and an additional 1s., making 5s. in all, to induce the farmer to keep the wheat for a year. If the farmers of the country could in this way be induced to keep, say, 4,000,000 quarters of wheat, it would mean an expenditure of only £1,000,000. That, compared with the enormous amount spent on the Army and the Navy was a very small sum; but it would ensure a considerable reserve of wheat for a case of emergency. The acreage under wheat has been decreasing constantly, and there was now less than one half the acreage of thirty years ago. Why should it not increase again? He believed that by some such subsidy as he had suggested, many farmers might be induced to grow wheat, and keep it for a year. Many persons asked—What is the good of having a reserve of food at all? You have a good Navy, and as long as you have that Navy nothing else is required.If that was so, he would ask why it was necessary to have a Volunteer force for home defence? There was always the risk that we might not be able entirely to sweep the seas; there might be an inroad of a foreign force; and then the Volunteer force, and, above all, such food supplies would be wanted. To show that the was no mere scare, he reminded the House that in 1885, when war with Russia was imminent, Mr. Gladstone asked for a vote of £10,000,000 on the chance of war breaking out, and immediately the price of wheat went up 10s. a quarter 1142 If on such a scare the price rose to that extent, what would it do if the country actually went to war? He had no doubt it would go up to 100s., and perhaps a great deal more. Wheat now was extraordinarily low, having been between 26s. and 27s. for the last year, and if a war broke out with a foreign Power it would certainly go up to three or four times that amount. Bread would then be three or four times its present price, and poor people who were now spending 5s. or 6s. a week on bread would not be able to pay it. The only way to allay the excitement and prevent the consequent enhancement of the price of wheat, in case of war, was to have a considerable reserve in the country. By the small expenditure he had mentioned such a reserve could be secured, and it would be a source of great strength to the country.
§ (6.10.) THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. GERALD BALFOUR,, Leeds, Central)
who was very indistinctly heard, was understood to accept the declaration of the hon. Member for St. Helens that the Amendment had not been moved in any hostile spirit, but purely because of the importance of the subject and from a patriotic motive, The hon. Member was evidently not easily discouraged, as a similar Motion had on two previous occasions been before the House without acceptance. The mover of the Amendment had avoided pressing any particular remedy; he had said that what he wanted was not an inquiry into the question of national granaries, Protection, or marine insurance, but an inquiry pure and simple. That, doubtless, was a very wise and prudent line for the hon. Member to take, and to a certain extent it disarmed criticism. But it was no good asking the House to undertake an inquiry without any clear or definite idea of the lines on which it was to proceed. He did not intend to go at any length into the various measures which had been proposed to prevent scarcity of food supplies in time of war. With the criticisms of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Monmouthshire with regard to national granaries, he entirely agreed. It would be in the highest degree imprudent for any Government to embark on such a scheme. The expense certainly would be enormous. 1143 The capital expenditure would probably be at least £30,000,000, and the annual cost certainly not less than £1,000,000.
§ MR. YERBURGH (Chester)
said the figure he was responsible for was a capital expenditure of a little over £17,000,000 for the purchase of 8,000,000 quarters.
§ MR. GERALD BALFOUR
said he might have overstated the amount, but in any case it was clear that it would be a large amount. In addition to that they had to consider that the Government of this country, or of any country, were extremely ill-adapted to carry out that which was in the nature of a speculation in corn. What the effect would be upon those private agencies upon which we at present depended for our supply of corn, it was difficult to forecast, but he had not the slightest doubt that it would weaken and demoralise those agencies. He thought the first effect at the outbreak of war of the existence of stores of corn to be dispensed by the Government, nobody knew how, would be to check the flow of corn into this country from the ordinary sources of supply at the very time when it was most important that such inflow should take place. Similar remarks applied to the proposal for Government insurance. The cost there would be gigantic. He had little doubt that it would be impossible to confine such insurance to corn; it would have to be extended to other kinds of food, and also to merchandise—certainly to raw materials. One or two speakers had dealt with the argument that in time of war it was necessary to make special provision for establishing stores of corn, but in one respect it was even more important to make provision in the case of raw material than in the case of corn. The price of corn might be raised to 30 or 40 per cent. without largely diminishing the consumption; but supposing there was a rise in the price of a raw material like cotton—a rise which applied to this country alone, and not to those countries in which there were cotton mannfacturies in competition with our own—was it not obvious that a rise of that kind in the price of the raw material would absolutely destroy the cotton industry of this country?
1144 It was all very well to say that men could not do without food. It had been suggested that with a sufficient stock of corn in the hands of the Government the Government could undertake the task of rationing the whole community. Such a task, however, had never been undertaken since the days which had been referred to by his hon. friend. With their present political and social system the idea of the Government's rationing the entire population of this country was, to his, mind, one of the most absurd and extravagent ideas that had ever entered into the mind of man. All these remedies were, in his judgment, both dangerous and impracticable. He agreed with those who thought that so long as we had a Navy which had command over the seas it was sufficient for us to depend upon the ordinary operations of supply and demand. His hon. friend the Member for St. Helens was very anxious to impress the House with his view that the Navy, however strong, could not do everything. He quite agreed that if war broke out the price of corn and other materials would unquestionably rise. For a short time the rise might be very great; but his belief was that panic prices would not last very long, and that the price of corn would rapidly reach some relation to the actual risk of capture in time of war. What was the risk of capture in time of war? That was a matter upon which it was very difficult to speak with any certainty; but the best authorities agreed that the average war risk in the French war at the beginning of last century was about 5 per cent. Taking the average war risk of 5 per cent., and calculating that risk upon the hull as well as upon the cargo, the risk would be covered and the war premium provided for by a rise in the price of corn of under 10 per cent. Let them assume there was a period of panic, lasting for two or three months, during which the war premium was, not 5 per cent. but 20 per cent. A rise of 40 per cent. in the price of corn—which the House would observe was a rise well within the fluctuations which actually occurred in time of peace—would cover a war premium of 20 per cent., or four times as great as the average war 1145 premium during the French war at the beginning of the last century.
He knew it was said that a scarcity in time of war was apt to produce a rise in price far greater than, in proportion, it should do; and that no doubt was true. He believed the ordinary estimate was that if the supply of corn was short to the extent of 20 per cent. we might expect a rise, in consequence of that shortage, of something like 80 per cent. But the House would observe that a rise of that kind was the result, not of a temporary deficiency, but of a real deficiency in the world's supply of corn. A real deficiency in the world's supply of corn continued to operate all through the year of scarcity; but a temporary deficiency, arising from the presence of an enemy's fleet in our waters, which intercepted the flow of corn into this country, might raise the price to a very considerable figure at the moment, but would immediately bring into play a compensating action which would bring corn into the country and reduce the price in proportion to the average war risk. It might be argued that the war risk at the present day was much greater than during the French war to which he had referred. He did not suppose that anything but experience would enable them to determine that question. They could not entirely leave out of sight the effect of the Declaration of Paris. The effect of the Declaration of Paris was that a neutral flag covered even belligerent goods, except in the case of contraband of war. Therefore, unless we were at war with a Power which did not adhere to the Declaration of Paris, and unless corn was declared to be contraband of war, we should always be certain of a sufficient supply coming to this country in neutral bottoms. Possibly corn might be declared to be contraband of war; but even in that case we should not be in a worse position than we were at the beginning of last century, when the whole of the commerce on which this country depended was carried in British bottoms, and was therefore exposed to the risk of capture.
Allusion had been made to prohibition of corn exports, but he could not say that it appeared to him there was and serious danger that a belligerent Power would be likely to have recourse to an 1146 expedient of that kind, for the simple reason that the corn market of the present day is an international market, and to have any effect the prohibition would have to extend to export of corn altogether, and then the effect would not fall on this country alone, it would be shared by the rest of the world; the amount withheld from exportation would be abstracted from the world's corn market. It would be a curious policy for a country to adopt in order to inflict a certain disadvantage on a belligerent, to subject all neutral nations to a disadvantage of the same kind. The price of corn in such a case would probably be raised all over the world, and the rise would probably fall far more heavily on the inhabitant of Germany, Italy or France, than upon the inhabitants of this country, for in those countries corn entered more largely into the diet of the working classes than in this country.
He did not think it was necessary to detain the House by dealing with the matter referred to by the hon. Member, namely, the danger that in time of war the supplies would be "cornered" The hon. Member's idea was that the corn supplies might be "cornered," not by purchasing the futures of corn, but by a syndicate of corn merchants who would buy up the existing corn for their own profit. His hon. friend had reminded the House that corn merchants, like other merchants, were not immaculate, and that they would act in accordance with what they conceived to be their best interests. Was it conceivable that, when a war broke out in which this country was engaged, and the price of corn rose in consequence, corn could actually be withheld as suggested, not merely for one or two months, but for so long a period as to starve this country out? That danger appeared to him to be extremely remote, but, if it existed, he should like to ask his hon. friend, why should a "corner" of that kind be attempted in time of war rather than in time of peace? He saw no particular advantage to the merchants in time of war, such as that to which his hon. friend referred.
§ MR. GERALD BALFOUR
said the amount of corn imported from European countries was undoubtedly small even now. The amount from Russia was extremly small.
§ MR. GERALD BALFOUR
said that, after some 60 per cent. received from the United States, our principal sources of supply were India, Canada, and Argentina. But in any case, if there had been a prospect of making a gigantic fortune by such successful cornering, there would have been more attempts at it in times of peace. His hon. friend had referred to the notorious case of Mr. Leiter, who attempted, with disastrous results to himself, to "corner" corn, and that illustrated one of the points to which he had referred, the effect of "corners" on prices. The effect of the Leiter "corner" in corn in raising the price lasted only about a month. It was in May, 1898. The greatest fluctuations of price produced by that "corner" told not so much in this country as in America. In America, during the month of May, the price of corn fluctuated enormously day by day. It was fairly steady up to the end of April being about 100 cents per bushel. About the end of April the price rose to 120 cents, and on the 9th May to 183 cents; it fell to 138 cents by the 14th May, rose again to 172 cents on the 26th, and on the 31st May it fell from 166 to 125 cents while another fall of 20 cents was recorded on the 1st June. These fluctuations were very great, but they only lasted a month, and when the month was over the normal price was soon restored. In England these operations had considerable effect, but very much less than in America. In England the price remained steady down to April. It was 38s. at the end of that month, when it began to rise, and it reached 48s. 1d. in June, and then it began to fall off rapidly. It would be so here, he believed, in the event of war. There might be, for a short time, an extremely rapid rise in the price of corn, but the price would soon fall to its normal level.
He thought he had now given 1148 sufficient reasons why the Government should not assent to the suggestion of his hon. friend to appoint a Committee of Inquiry, for there really was nothing to inquire into. Of course, they all knew that there would be a rise in price on the outbreak of war, but that rise would not be such as to cause anything like real scarcity or famine prices. It was sufficient for us if we had a Navy adequate for our needs, and if we had not such a Navy it was not an inquiry that was needed, but rather the impeachment of a Government which had neglected an obvious and essential duty.
§ (6.38.) MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)
It has been somewhat difficult for me to follow what the right hon. Gentleman said, but so far as was able to do so, he declined to consider the suggestion of my hon. friend. I own that I regret it. I regret also that I am not in a position to supply the materials to judge of the actual facts which my hon. friend the Member for Central Sheffield thought I should be able to give, because I was formerly President of the Board of Agriculture. I would remind my hon. friend that that is a good many years ago, and I am afraid that my memory does not enable me to afford the information. While I entirely agree with his criticism as to the absence of Ministers from the Front Bench in the earlier part of the evening, I venture to think that this is a question that more directly concerns the Secretary of State for War and the First Lord of the Admiralty, because undoubtedly it is a most serious item in the consideration of the defences of the country.
My right hon. friend concluded his observations by saying that as far as he could see, there was nothing at all to inquire into. Surely there is something to inquire into when we depend for our supply of food in this country, as far as three-fourths are concerned, on imports. If we should unfortunately be involved in a European war, and if we should lose command of the seas even for a very short period, no position in which the country could be placed could possibly be more serious. This fact is patent to everybody, and I know that it is already causing con- 1149 siderable alarm and giving rise to a feeling of apprehension amongst great numbers of the people of this country. It is too much to say that there is nothing whatever to inquire into, in cases of this kind. Whoever is right or wrong in the figures, in my humble opinion the present position is the very reverse of satisfactory. When we are told by the Prime Minister, as we were not long ago, that undoubtedly we are unpopular all over the world, and when that is followed by the statement of the ex-Prime Minister who said, "You are bitterly detested," I think it is unwise on the part of the Government to think that there is no possible reason for apprehension with reference to the subject before the House. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Monmouthshire to some extent took the view of the President of the Board of Trade, because in dealing with the apprehension which had been expressed he said, "Oh, wheat would be all right, it would be sent to some neutral port, Antwerp for instance, and from there it would be sent without difficulty to England." It is quite true that anything carried in neutral vessels would be safe from confiscation if not carrying contraband of war. But suppose that food was considered contraband of war. Remember that the exemption from confiscation of vessels carrying food does not prevent them from seizure, and considerable delay might occur at a time when the food might be absolutely necessary in this country.
I venture to think then that, on the showing of the right hon. Gentleman, the position is bad enough, for he admits the danger, although he says it is remote. He prefers to rely on the law of supply and demand. In ordinary circumstances he is quite right, but in the circumstances we are considering there are many things which must not be left out of account. Suppose, for a moment, there should be a blockade, what would be the use of depending on the law of supply and demand then? Is a blockade of these Islands entirely beyond the reach of practical warfare? I have consulted a speech delivered by the right hon. Gentleman the present Leader of the House in 1897, in which he said—What I believe is a real and a great danger is the impossibility of getting the corn in 1150 through a blockade of our coasts. I do not wish to minimise that. I think it is a possible danger.Now, the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade says that our position in certain circumstances to which he referred would not be worse than it was at the beginning of the last century, But there is the whole difference in the world between the beginning of last century and the position in which we are placed to-day.
§ MR. GERALD BALFOUR
My right hon. friend has misunderstood me. What I suggested, or at least meant to suggest, was that war risks at present, in consequence of the capture of goods at sea, could not be greater than they were then.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
It may have been my fault in hearing the right hon. Gentleman, but unless he included the capture of corn—
§ MR. CHAPLIN
The right hon. Gentleman has included the capture of corn, and therefore my argument is to the point. There is the whole difference in the world between the two periods, because at the beginning of last century we grew nearly the whole of our food ourselves, whereas we now get nearly the whole of it from abroad. Thus in my humble opinion, the possible risks are so great, and the possible consequences are so appalling, that I am not prepared to sit down and take the view that nothing ought to be done and that nothing is required. What we want is certainty that under certain conditions there should be an assured supply of corn in this country for a certain number of months, and the reason for that in my mind, is perfectly simple. If we had that supply for a sufficient time, I do not care much what would happen to us; I do not mean I would not care, but I would not be very apprehensive. But if the worst came to the worst, we can still grow in this country, in case of emergency, all the corn that is required for ourselves. On that I stake my opinion. For that, purpose a whole variety of plans have been submitted to 1151 the House. I will not enter into any of those plans on the present occasion. I would not pledge myself to any one of them without inquiry. What we want to know is the truth on all these subjects. And if my right hon. friend thinks we are unreasonable, and that we ought to be satisfied with the assurances of the Government, he ought to bear in mind what fell from my hon. friend when he reminded the Government of the circumstances of the present war, how completely the Government—and I take part of the blame to myself, for I was a member of the Government at the time—were deceived in nearly all the important circumstances connected with the war. There is therefore very little comfort and satisfaction to be derived in consequence of similar declarations made by my right hon. friend in regard to the position of this country in the event of another great war, especially a European war. The hon. Member for Stalybridge, referring to one of these suggestions, said there was no precedent in any country in the modern world for instituting stores of grain, and that therefore, there was no need for stores of grain. I admit that, but there is more than one great country on the continent of Europe where there are war-chests of another kind. Both in Germany and in Russia they possess plenty of grain, if they should unhappily drift into war, but they have not the gold. We have got the gold, but not the grain. They have war-chests of gold for an emergency; and what we want in this country is an adequate war-chest of grain.
The right hon. Gentleman said that my hon. friend the Member for St. Helens was studiously vague in all his statements, but I think that, so far from being vague, he stated that what he wanted was an inquiry into all the specific proposals that had been made in regard to this question. The great objection of my right hon. friend to granaries was on the ground of cost. It is impossible to say what the cost is likely to be, but taking it at the highest estimate, 30 millions of money, what are the ordinary War Estimates at the present time? I suppose they are more than 30 millions a year, and even supposing the sum required for establishing a 1152 reserve of grain was 30 millions, the interest on that sum would be a bagatelle compared with what we are spending on the War Estimates on a peace footing at the present time. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that this subject was quite unsuited for speculation, and that any proposals of the kind suggested would inevitably interfere with the trade of the country. But there is to be no speculation that I am aware of. All that is suggested is that there should be the purchase of an. adequate reserve of grain—so many millions of quarters—and that, I understand, is to be kept in the possession of the Government and renewed every year by one-third, and never to be touched except in the case of great emergency in the event of war. Would there be, when once that reserve is established, any reason to interfere with speculation or trade or anything else of the kind? It would simply be a war-chest of grain in reserve. The thing was possible in the days of another Joseph in Egypt, who at that time was a man of great force and energy of character. Surely we are not to be told that what was possible and perfectly successful for seven years three thousand years ago is entirely beyond the range and power of British statemanship in the year 1902.
Apart altogether from that, I do not know that any one can deny that the position is really serious, with three-fourths of our food supplies coming from abroad. Why, if unhappily we became engaged in a foreign war, our situation would be the same as that of an army cut off from its commissariat. We were told that there was the supremacy of the Fleet. But if the supremacy of the Fleet is gone, even for a short time, our cotton and other raw materials for our industries would be cut off. And what is the inference we are intended to draw for that state of things? It is that we are to give in. I utterly repudiate the notion that though once in a way our Fleet may be in difficulties for a time, we are to yield to the demands of foreign nations. I say these are the counsels of despair, and I dispute them altogether. If there be one lesson taught us more clearly and distinctly than another by 1153 the results of this recent war, it is the enormous advantage which rests with the defenders; and if we had only in this country a sufficient supply of food we might be attacked by all the nations of the world for ever without the slightest hope or chance of their being successful. Under the conditions of modern arms, a successful invasion of this country I regard as an impossibility, provided we had food. More than that, we have greater facilities for building fleets, I believe, than all the other nations of the world put together. We have any number of harbours and dockyards, and all the material. We have the workers, the men, and the money; and we should at once set to work to build another fleet—aye, half-a-dozen fleets—unless we were induced to surrender by lack of food. Again, a reserve of grain would prevent a rise in the price of food to the poor.
I am bound to say that I cannot see what is the reasonable objection to an inquiry of this nature. On the face of it, it must be admitted that the position of this country is not at all a pleasant one in this respect. There is something in the allegation made in the course of this debate that a very considerable feeling of uneasiness exists on this question in various circles in this country. If there is nothing in them, if these apprehensions are altogether unfounded, an inquiry of this sort is the wisest thing, in order to dispel them; and if you have got a good case they would be dispelled once for all. If, on the other hand, you have not got a good case, it is high time that this country should set to work in earnest to devise a remedy.
§ (7.0.) MR. GEORGE WHITELEY (Yorkshire, W. R., Pudsey)
said that he thought many hon. Members on his own side of the House would agree with him when he said that the last three speeches which had been made from the opposite side of the House revolved, if they did not absolutely hinge, on Protection. A suggestion had been made that the farming industry was to receive an additional bonus over and above that which it had already received amounting to about £1,000,000 per annum, in order to persuade farmers to ward off this danger by stacking their corn in ricks for a certain period of time. Prevention 1154 was better than cure, and all those dire dangers which had been prognosticated could only ensue provided that the British Fleet was crippled or swept off the seas. But even then the difficulties would not be so great as his hon. friend opposite appeared to imagine, because, as Lord Wolseley pointed out two or three years back, it would be impossible, with our extensive coast line, to prevent foreign ships landing or running cargoes of wheat upon our shores for the sake of pelf. The money proposed to be expended upon this scheme would be far better spent upon our Fleet than in the manner which had been suggested.
It was not often that he agreed with the President of the Board of Trade, but in his opinion, the right hon. Gentleman's views were sound upon this matter. He had pointed out the fact that we had other trades in this country besides agriculture. It was perfectly true that we grew some wheat in this country, but we did not grow cotton, and if this country lost the command of the seas even for a month, that would stop the importation of raw cotton and raw wool into this country. He thought that would be even as great a disaster as the stoppage of our food supply. If we had not the raw material there would be no wages for the people, and then the difficulties would be far greater than those which had been pointed out by his hon. friend opposite. If we were going to give a bonus or a subsidy to every farmer who kept a rick of wheat for a certain time, why not give a shilling apiece to every cotton manufacturer for every piece of cotton material which he kept in stock for twelve months; and the same with the woollen manufacturer. There were many other articles which came from over the seas. He believed that "Bovril" was made in Argentina, and why not give every grocer a subsidy of so much per tin to keep a certain amount of Bovril in stock. If we were going to give a bonus for storing wheat, why not extend it to other articles such as champagne and barrels of beer and so on. The proposals which had been made by the mover of this Amendment only needed to be stated in order to show their absurdity. If the Government had any money to spare, by all means let them protect our shores, and instead of pro- 1155 tecting one of the British industries, they would then be safeguarding all the industries carried on in this country. The hon. Member for the Chelmsford Division had told them how land was going out of cultivation, and how agriculture was depressed. He knew the case of a farmer who had been paying £150 a year for a very long period. His lease was now running out, and he had received notice of an increase of £10 a year in his rent. There did not appear any reason for increasing this rent except the fact that the rates had been reduced, and on this account the agent and the landlord thought the farm was worth £10 a year more. This farmer had received £7 10s per annum in relief of his rates, but his rent had been increased by £10.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! I think the hon. Member is going rather wide of the subject raised by the Amendment.
§ MR. GEORGE WHITELEY
thought that his hon. friends opposite had also gone a little wide of the mark in suggesting that corn should be stacked in hay ricks. If we gave a bonus to farmers for keeping corn in corn ricks, why not also give a bonus for keeping hay in hay ricks? He thought this House would be better employed trying to remedy real grievances, instead of discussing such fads as national granaries.
(7.6.) MR GIBSON BOWLES
said he understood that his hon. friends who supported this Motion contended that unless something was done to secure our food supply, wheat would go up to a very high price in time of war. Now, he had always been under the impression that high prices for wheat were exactly what the agriculturists wanted. He did not think that Joseph was a good example to have cited in this connection. It was true that he planted his friends in the land of Goshen, and provided them with food. But at what price? At the price of enslavement to the Egyptians, of the sale of themselves and their cattle and goods to Pharaoh. He did not know whether his hon. friend suggested that that was the price we should pay to secure this 1156 country from purely imaginary dangers. But there was another point. Joseph made a "corner," and although Jews had often succeeded in doing this, no Gentile had ever yet succeeded in making a "corner." The thing that surprised him even more than this was the fact that His Majesty's Government did not seem to have understood the nature of this question. This was either a military or an agricultural question, and he should say himself that it was a military question, and yet they had had the President of the Board of Trade put up to reply to the discussion. The right hon. Gentleman had given them an academic oration upon economic principles, and after listening to that oration he felt himself to be in that state of confusion which generally ensued after one had listened to the statement of a very able statistician. He thought it would have been more appropriate for the Secretary to the Admiralty or the President of the Board of Agriculture to have replied upon this question, but perhaps the experience of last night had induced the Government not to put up the latter right hon. Gentleman again upon this occasion. He thought he should receive the support of his right hon. friend when he said that if this was a, danger at all it was a military danger, and a danger which, in his opinion, was purely imaginary. He was afraid the right hon. Member for West Monmouthshire had forgotten some of the international law of which he had been such in able exponent under the name of "Historicus." The right hon. Gentleman spoke of corn in time of war going from America to Antwerp. Why? It would come straight to England, for if it was neutral property it was safe from seizure under the Declaration of Paris, even though in a British ship. He thought the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that proposition; if not he would have to read to him the Declaration of Paris, which affirmed two things. One was that neutral property covered itself from capture, and was not capturable under any circumstances. The other thing was that, in the case of belligerent property, that also was safe from capture in a neutral ship. He undertook to say that if there was a war such as had been suggested, almost all 1157 the ships would be neutral, as the English carrying trade would be swept away by the mere increase in the rates of insurance. We should then have Canadian corn coming in neutral ships to England, and that would be secure from capture under the Declaration of Paris. He was glad the right hon. Gentleman did not now question his international law.
§ * SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT
I do not think the hon. Member sees my point. The case has been raised of supposing that corn should be declared contraband of war. In that case if it went to a neutral port it would not be contraband of war, but if it went to a belligerent port it would be contraband of war. I do not think, however, that neutral nations would ever allow provisions to be declared contraband of war.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
The right hon. Gentleman has now made another statement as to the law of nations which is not correct. He says that contraband of war cannot be contraband when it goes to a neutral port. He must have forgotten the case of the vessel which took contraband of war and landed it at the French port of Jibutil during the war between Italy and Abyssinia, which was seized by an Italian cruiser, and duly condemned by a prize-court at Rome. I had the pleasure of bringing that case to Lord Salisbury's notice when the question arose whether contraband of war could be shipped to Delagoa Bay, and I understand that Lord Salisbury quoted it to the German Ambassador. On that case it is admitted now that there can be such a thing as contraband of war sent to a neutral port.
Now I come to contraband of war. My hon. friend behind me suggests that there will be great danger of corn, England being at war, being declared contraband of war. But who is going to declare it contraband of war? Do hon. Members and right hon. Members imagine that it is in the power of one belligerent to say it is contraband of war whenever he chooses? There is a settled practice in the prize-courts and the law of nations, that no declaration 1158 on the part of a belligerent can make a thing contraband of war. We saw that in the case of the French war in China, when rice was declared contraband of war by the French. What happened? We said "we do not acknowledge in the least your right to make the declaration," and we did not abstain from trading in rice any more than we did before. It is not a declaration of that kind that settles what is contraband of war; it is, and it is alone, the settled judgment of the prize-court on the facts of the case. I imagine that that makes the danger more remote, because you have first to get that definition, which has never yet been given.
Now I come to the real question. I venture to say it is absolutely impossible that any Court could give such a definition with regard to the British Islands. I can understand that corn might be made contraband of war when it was being imported into a besieged city, but here I come to the kernel of my argument. I maintain that the geographical position of the British Islands is such that you cannot blockade all our ports. You would have to blockade completely something like 1,000 miles of coast line before access to these islands could be prevented, whether we commanded the seas or not. The waterways to the British Islands are so enormously wide and large, that it would be absolutely impossible for all the fleets in the world, with the fleet of England included, to blockade Great Britain. It would be impossible to blockade the seas and prevent any cargo coming in that it was to our interests to buy. You might blockade one port, which I very much doubt, but to suggest that you are going to blockade the whole of our ports is ridiculous and absurd. Well, Sir, that is my reason for saying that we need have no fear.
Now, I come to the question of prices. It is said that prices would rise. If I am right in my contention, and if it be true that the difficulty of getting corn for the British Isles in time of war would not be insuperable or even very great, then I say that prices would not rise very high. Hon. Members who have read the accounts of the blockading of the southern coasts of America in the time of the civil war must be aware that in spite of the stringency 1159 of that blockade, ships went in and out taking everything that the Southerner's wanted even to ladies' stays and bonnets—[A Voice: At an increased price!]—no matter at what price; they got there. It is said the price of corn would rise in an enormous manner. That does not only occur in time of war. That eminent operator, the brother-in-law of the Viceroy of India, I think, pretty well doubled the price of corn in a few days in a time of peace. Therefore it is not only in time of war that you have this inconvenience, it is in time of peace, and if we can bear a rise in price in time of peace we can bear it in time of war. My own opinion is that corn would come to us with so much ease and with so little extra risk that the rise in price would not be very great; but even if the increase in price were as great as that which Mr. Leiter produced, as we could bear it under Leiter, so we could bear it under war. Then we are told that we should encourage our colonies in growing corn. But in sending corn to us in time of war they would be open to the same risks as the foreigner, so there would be no advantage in that, and if there are these tremendous war risks in the supply of corn, to encourage its growth in the colonies would be in some cases to lure the colonies on to their ruin. There is another point. If we are insecure as to the supply of corn from abroad in time of war, we are equally insecure as to the supply of raw material, and that is only next in importance to the supply of corn, because after you get the corn you must have the money to buy it with, and unless you have the raw material to make up and earn the money, you will not have the money to buy the corn. Therefore I think the mover of this Amendment has failed in his duty, because he has only dealt with corn, and if he had been successful, and all the remedies advocated by him had been adopted, he would only secure the free importation of corn into a country where the poor would have no money to buy it—they having no raw material to make up and consequently no wages.
Sir, I am impatient in this matter. This is a vote of want of confidence not in the Government but in the Admiralty. This inquiry which is 1160 asked for is an inquiry which is always going on at the Admiralty, and if the Admiralty have not satisfied themselves that they can keep this country supplied with corn in time of war, they ought to be taken out and beheaded on Tower Hill. Although I have not much confidence in the Admiralty, I have confidence in them, in this case, because, of all the problems they have to solve, the easiest is that of bringing corn to this country. In order to prevent the importation of corn to this country, the whole of our coasts would have to be closed by an enemy. I hope more corn will be able to be grown here, because I believe it is the best, and I always have my bread made out of English corn, but I do hope the House and the Government will not get into a panic with regard to the supply of corn to this country, which I undertake to say will never be seriously interfered with in time of war.
§ (7.26.) MR. PURVIS (Peterborough)
said the Amendment suggested an enquiry into the advisability of committing a certain evil, in order to avoid a contingent and visionary evil. If there was any justification for the Amendment, it would be on the assumption of the right hon. Member for Sleaford, that this country was going to be at war with all the nations of the world for ever. This was a small country, and the question must be treated as one of food supply and not upon the assumption that we were going to be eternally at war. If we were going to war with a particular nation we should have to consider whether it was a European nation with a Fleet capable of meeting our own at sea. If the Amendment meant anything at all, it meant Protection and nothing less. The President of the Board of Trade had shown that it was nothing but a blow at the free trade of the country. If there was Protection, why not protect cotton. We were all farmers in a sense, for although we did not all grow corn in order to buy bread, we had to manufacture cotton and other raw material. By this Motion, it was proposed to put obstacles in the way of free imports in order to benefit the English agriculturalist. But the supporters of that proposal appeared to forget that if they interfered with imports they must also interfere with exports. The imports of a nation 1161 balanced the exports, and the exports balanced the imports. England depended on her exports, and if the imports were once interfered with those exports would be interfered with, in like manner. Much had been said about our dependence on imported food in time of war. But what did we depend on in time of peace? Were we to judge our requirements by a perpetual state of war? Surely the Government did not take so pessimistic a view as that the whole machinery of the country was to be altered because we were supposed to be going to war with all the nations of the world for ever. It had also to be remembered that if trade were interfered with, capital would be driven away. After all, the safeguard of England in the future was the Navy. If an enemy broke through the Navy, these proposed stores would become the prey and support of the enemy. To those who agreed with his views he would say, "In vain is the net set in sight of the bird," while to those who disagreed he would venture to suggest that we had better "choose the ills we have than fly to those we know not of."
§ (7.34.) MR. DAVID MACIVER (Liverpool, Kirkdale)
was understood to express his absolute agreement with the Amend merit. The hon. Member for St. Helens had done a public service in calling attention to the growing dependence of the country upon foreign nations for its food supplies. He regretted the terms in which the President of the Board of Trade had declined to grant the inquiry asked for. The right hon. Gentleman had said there was nothing to inquire about. If, however, such an inquiry was granted, it would probably be found there was a good deal to inquire about, that much which had been stated so confidently in the debate was wrong, and that a great deal might be done in the direction suggested. Because certain proposals such as that of national granaries did not appeal to the House, it did not necessarily follow that every proposal of the kind was wrong. Reference had been made to what the Navy would do, but he agreed with the view of the hon. Member for Gates head rather than with some of the glowing accounts of the action the Navy would take in the way of protect- 1162 ing the food supplies of the country. Though the hon. Member for St. Helens might not succeed on this occasion, his proposal would meet with a great deal of sympathy, not only in the House, but throughout the country. Many people felt there was a great national danger in the state of things to which the hon. Member had called attention, and that there ought to be an inquiry. One reason why some people objected to an inquiry was that they feared the result would be unfavourable to what they regarded as the sacred principle of free trade. He believed that the great reason for the depopulation and many of the troubles of Ireland was to be found in the so-called free trade system. He hoped the hon. Member would keep pegging away until the inquiry for which he asked was granted.
§ (7.40.) MR. FIELD (Dublin, St. Patrick)
said there was no question whatever that the system of free trade as at present practised was one of the main factors in the ruin of Ireland. In his opinion it was not free trade at all; it was merely a question of free imports. Free trade really meant a free interchange of commodities between any two countries, but as practised, it meant that goods, with a few exceptions, were imported free of duty, while all articles going to other countries were severely taxed, and a war of Protection waged against them. A state of things peculiar to the three kingdoms was that agriculture was going to decay. That was a startling state of affairs. The so-called doctrine of free trade had rendered the cultivation of land unprofitable.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
intimated that the hon, Member could not discuss the general question of free trade or protection.
§ MR. FIELD
said it was free trade that made the country so dependent on foreign supplies, and that was the question before the House. But there was one point to which he desired to direct attention. He had on several occasions put questions to the President of the Board of Trade about the system in 1163 existence on all the Corn Exchanges in Europe of buying "corn futures." He could not understand why the Government of the country could not co-operate in this matter with other Governments, because the food supply was a very important thing to all countries. They had an important system of protecting their corn supply in New York, Berlin, Vienna, and other countries, and why should the producer of corn be left at the mercy of the corn gang.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! The hon. Member seems to be getting away from the question of the provision of granaries.
§ MR. SETON-KARR
said that after the discussion which had taken place, he would ask the leave of the House to allow him to withdraw his Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question again proposed.