§ [MOTION FOR ADJOURNMENT.]
§ SIR JAMES WOODHOUSE (Huddersfield)
rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz.: "The formation of an American Shipping Combination, for the purpose of controlling the Shipping Trade in the North Atlantic, and its effect on the Maritime and Mercantile interests of the United Kingdom ;" but the pleasure of the House not having been signified, Mr. Speaker called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than forty Members have accordingly risen—
§ (4.30.) SIR JAMES WOODHOUSE
I am extremely reluctant to trespass on the indulgence of this House with regard to this matter, but I think that hon. Members on all sides will agree with me that it is one of very serious importance, and that it ought to engage the attention of Parliament. The forms of this House unhappily do not give a Member any other opportunity than the present one of bringing a subject like this under the consideration of the House. I need hardly say that it is in no partisan or polemical spirit that I venture to bring this matter forward. The interests which are involved are not Party interests, they are great national interests, and there is, both inside and outside this House, great misgiving, not to say grave anxiety, 459 as to what the effect of the formation of this shipping combination will be I need hardly say, too, that it is with no antipathy or ill-feeling towards the American people that I ask that this subject shall be considered today. I am sure I am expressing the unanimous feeling of this House, and of His Majesty's subjects outside, when I say that we have but one feeling towards America and its people, and that is a feeling of friendship; and we have but one rivalry with her, and that is to excel in the arts of peace and the work of civilisation.
What are the facts—the facts of which I hope the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade has now, at all events, official cognisance. I notice the right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I do not understand a Government department in charge of what concerns the maritime and mercantile interests of this country allowing what is now taking place to be outside its official cognisance—it may be that the right hon. Gentleman understands those words in a technical sense, but at all events this country expects, and I am sure it will not be satisfied otherwise, than that the Board of Trade and the Government should have official cognisance of what is going on. Again I ask what are the facts? A great American combination has been formed, with a capital of avowedly £34,000,000 sterling, which proposes to acquire seven great shipping lines, with a tonnage of some 2,000,000 odd tons of shipping, and vessels numbering from 370 to 380. No doubt there have been very exaggerated assertions in the absence of an accurate statement of facts, both in the Press and by people outside. But whether or not this combination is so gigantic as at first it was hinted, it is sufficiently large and serious to demand the earnest consideration of all who are concerned in the future welfare and prosperity of the shipping and commercial interests of this country.
If the facts be what I have said, the question arises, what is the object of this combination? The object, it is said, is to raise freights, and to get control over the North Atlantic shipping industry. But we cannot overlook this fact, that the combination which has 460 been formed in this matter to control this shipping is a combination of capitalists who already control the great railroads of America, and the effect of that is that, controlling as they do the great railroads of America, they will be able to control the whole of the merchandise that passes over these lines, and eventually practically the whole Atlantic trade. It is said that this combination will only control at present about one-fourth of the shipping trade in the Atlantic. But that is not the point. The point is—What will be the effect of their at the same time controlling the railroads in America? The President of the Great Pennsylvania railroad is one of the principal owners also of one of these lines, and is one of the principal parties in the combination, and by reason of that fact they can obtain, on the railroads charges which would enable them to reduce, for the time being, the freight upon the lines, and so prevent any other competitors competing with them until they have run them off, and then they will be able to raise the rates, and in that way to injure the trade of this country. That is one aspect of the question which, I think, the House may fairly take into consideration. But there are also political interests involved. There are questions affecting the important mail contracts, and contracts with the Admiralty with regard to the auxiliary cruisers upon which we should like more information. We should like to know how the Government propose to deal with them. It is said that these vessels cannot, as the law stands, be transferred from the British flag to the flag of the United States without an Act of Congress. I grant that that is so. But we cannot forget the fact that four or five years ago a Bill was introduced into Congress which provided that where 60 per cent. of the interest in any vessel was held by American subjects that that should entitle that vessel to be placed on the American register. That Bill, it is true, did not pass Congress. But there would be no difficulty in a measure of that kind being again introduced and being passed, and if that were so it would entirely alter the position with regard to the combination. It is said that there is not going to be a sale of the great White Star 461 Line to this combination, but only a transfer or exchange of shares. That, however, means practically the same thing, in so far as its effect upon our commerce and upon our great industries are concerned.
My real object in bringing this subject under the attention of the House is to elicit what the Government really know and what the view of the Government is with regard to this combination, and to allay public anxiety by showing that the Government are seriously alive to the possible and probable effects which attend a great combination of this character, and to the dangers affecting our mercantile and maritime interests. I also want to know what steps they propose to take in order to deal with it, because it is not the effect at the immediate moment that is so important, but as to what is going to be the effect in the future. It is impossible not to see that in the future it may have a serious effect upon the trade of this country. The Americans are gradually capturing our industries; they have captured our shoe industry, and they are seriously affecting our steel industry. Some of those who are interested in this great combination already control more than 70 per cent. of the total output of steel in America, and the formation of other great trusts is prejudicially affecting the price of food and other products, and the question is how far we are going to allow this to spread. I noticed that, in a leading article in The Times the other day, it was said that this combination was the natural effect of a cause, and that the cause was the lack of energy and efficiency on the part of British merchants and those interested in British commerce. There are, no doubt, those who believe that this country has reached the zenith of its industrial strength, and that in the future our course will be downwards and not upwards—that our trade will not only decline but decay, and that eventually America will be the centre and seat of the Anglo-Saxon race. Personally, I do not indulge in, neither do I believe in, these jeremiads. I believe there is still life in this country, and that there are men, who will be able, by the exercise of greater skill and greater activity, to cope with the overwhelmingly prodigious natural advantages that America possesses. I was pleased to see an hon. Member who sits for a Division in this House in the 462 Labour interest, and who has recently paid a visit to America, the other day addressed his fellow-workmen and pointed out the advantages which labour-saving machinery had produced in America, urging upon them that, if they intended to cope with the great natural advantages possessed by America they must get rid of a lot of the notions they had hitherto entertained and apply themselves with greater industry, skill, and activity to the adoption of American methods. That was very sound advice which cannot too soon be accepted and acted on. We are now face to face with a combination which may affect our trade interests, and what we wish, and what I am sure the House and the country wish, is to feel that the Government of the day are thoroughly alive to the situation. In order to elicit that and to allay public anxiety I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Sir James Woodhouse.)
(4.45.) MR. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)
This is probably the last occasion upon which the House will have an adequate opportunity of Calling attention to a matter of urgent public importance, unchecked by the limitations which are to be imposed under the new Rules. I have received many representations urging me to take some action in this matter, and I do think the question which has been raised is one which ought to engage the attention of His Majesty's Government. Indeed, I think it ought to have received their attention earlier. It ought not to have been necessary to make this Motion. The situation calls for spontaneous action on the part of the Government. The President of the Board of Trade has said he has no official information. What is the use of a Minister of State, if in regard to matters of importance he has to divide himself in two, one half to be official, the other unofficial, and the unofficial half alone to be aware of such important in-formation? I cannot understand such a condition of things.
I am going to ask another question. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has communicated with the Foreign Office in regard to this matter. 463 Is it not a fact that the Foreign Office has been fully informed upon this matter for weeks? Has the Foreign Office pigeon-holed the information, and if so, why? I am perfectly certain in my own mind that the Foreign Office has had this information for weeks, and I believe they had it from the same source as that which gave it to the German Foreign Office. The only difference is that whereas the German Foreign Office promptly acted upon the information His Majesty's Government have taken no steps at all.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (MR. GERALD BALFOUR,) Leeds, Central
The Government never said they had taken no steps.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
The right hon. Gentleman says the Government never said they had taken no steps. If they have taken any, I hope the House will know tonight what they are. The difficulty in debating this matter is that so far we do not fully know the facts. We do not really know what has happened. We have been told that 370 ships representing an aggregate of 2,000,000 tons have passed into the hands of this combination. I take it that when mention is made of 2,000,000 tons, it must be intended to include the German ships as well as those which concern us, which latter, I should suppose, would represent some 700,000 tons. Now we are told that the British ships have not been sold and that all that has occurred is that the shares have been sold. The ships have not been sold but the shares have. We are also told that the shares have not been sold but have simply been exchanged for other shares. In other words the English shares in the White Star Line are henceforth to be represented by the American scrip of the Navigation Syndicate, and we are told that these ships are, nevertheless, to fly the British flag. I cannot comprehend this, because the Merchant Shipping Act is very precise as to what shall or shall not be a qualifying ownership to enable a vessel to fly the British flag. Are we seriously to be told that the White Star Line has handed over the whole of its shares to the Navigation Trust, and has received in return scrip of the Navigation Trust, 464 and that, nevertheless, there is no change in the status of the ships which those shares represent? The controlling power resides in an American State, and the dominion over the property—which is of the essence of the property itself—is in the Navigation Trust of this American combination. Are we seriously to be told that nevertheless the property in all those ships remains British in the true sense of ownership as contemplated by the Merchant Shipping Act? This seems to me to be absurd, and quibbling with words. When once the operation which I have described has taken place I say that the whole control of and dominion over those ships has passed into American hands, that the true ownership of those vessels has become no longer English but American, and that, according to the Merchant Shipping Act, those ships have no longer any right to a British register. My right hon. friend told me that he is not aware of any ships being on the British register which were owned by foreigners.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
But it is notorious that there are many. The Standard Oil Company owns such ships. The Leyland Line is owned by Americans and yet it is on the British register. I may mention also the Atlantic Transport Line, the National Line, and the Red Star Line, which last runs, I believe, under the Belgian flag. This is notorious to people interested in shipping, and they are fully aware that there are a very considerable number of ships on the British register which do not belong to British subjects at all, but belong entirely to foreigners. Here I think the Board of Trade have shown themselves remiss, because although they are the protectors of the British register they have not protected it, but have allowed colourable declarations to show that these ships belonged to British owners, when as a matter of fact the owners were foreigners. When transactions such as I have described have taken place I say that in essence and effect the ownership of those ships has passed to aliens, and that those vessels 465 are not entitled to be on the British register any longer. If I am right I do not see what register they would at present be entitled to be upon. They would not be entitled to the American register, and if not entitled to British register then they would be outcasts with some of the attributes indeed of the pirate. They would not be entitled to clearance or reception in any English port, and would be liable to forfeiture. I is, therefore, most important that we should know the precise facts, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will feel at liberty to state at any rate such facts as have been communicated to him so far as to enable us to understand the exact position in which these ships will be placed. I need not say that when these ships have lost their British register nothing will be easier than to rapidly pass a law in the States enabling them to obtain an American register.
But all this raises a most important question, and it is how far these transactions are likely to affect the carrying trade of Great Britain, which is the backbone of the prosperity of this country. Standing as she does in a central position among the nations of the earth at the crossing of the sea routes, which are the cheapest routes, the easiest routes, and the ever open routes, which two-thirds of all trade always takes, I say that, established in that position, England is in a commanding situation for conducting the carrying trade of the world. She has done this in the past with the greatest possible success, and anything which constitutes a menace to that trade constitutes a greater menace to the future of England than anything which can threaten our agriculture or even our manufactures. You may fail in agriculture, you may be beaten in manufactures so as to lose in that your supremacy, but so long as you command the carrying trade, and therewith the power of taking toll upon all that moves on the face of the earth, so long will England be a great and principal nation in the world. But lose that and you lose that which is most important to you. It is, therefore, highly important that we should know whether there is any latent threat in what has recently occurred. Let me remind the House that it is not the Atlantic trade alone 466 which is immediately in question, because these ships trade not only across the Atlantic but also across the Pacific, and they go to New Zealand and Australia.
The Atlantic trade, however, is the most important carried on across the sea. In the year 1900 the imports of the United Kingdom amounted to £523,000,000, and of this total £139,000,000 or 27 per cent. came from the United States. Our exports for the same year were £534,000,000, and, of this total £37,000,000, or 10 per cent. went to the United States. During the same year our total trade inwards and out-wards with all the world amounted to £877,000,000 and the total trade between this country and the United States was £176,000,000 or 20 per cent. This is more than twice as much as with France, and nearly three times as much as with any other country in the world. What now will be the effect of this change? First of all there will be the effect on the subsidised cruisers. Although the Admiralty deny it, I believe that the subsidised cruisers may escape their obligation to the Government. I do not, however, attach much importance to this, because in my opinion the principle of subsidies was always wrong, for it ties the Government up to a vessel which, when war breaks out and you want her, may have become obsolete and her mountings for armaments will certainly have become obsolete, and I never have believed in Subsidising cruisers of this sort.
But although I do not attach very great importance to this, there is a certain amount of importance in the situation that will be created if the crews of the vessels controlled by the Navigation Trust should belong to the Royal Naval Reserve. You may have a bogus owner at Liverpool and other places making a bogus delaration, and when you have this Navigation Trust controlling every movement of these ships, and exercising complete dominion over them it is absurd to pretend that they are anything else but American ships. What will be the position of Naval Reserve men under these circumstances. Assuming they have become American ships, are we to continue paying retainers and yearly sums to the crews of those American ships as members of the Royal Naval 467 Reserve? The Secretary to the Admiralty has a Bill now before Parliament with regard to the Naval Reserve which is very cognate to this question. He proposes that the Admiralty should make Naval Reserve men out of the men serving on any sort of ship of any nationality and register. At the present time he can only enrol men serving in ships on the British register, but he proposes to leave the Admiralty at liberty to enrol any men to the Royal Naval Reserve in whatever ships they may be serving. I do not think that is safe, and I hope he will only extend his power to ships registered in the British Colonies and the dominions of His Majesty, and not take them from any ships of any other nationality.
Now it is quite clear that this tremendous operation has not been conducted for mere amusement. It has been done for profit to the American Company at the expense of the English companies who have been swallowed up by this great "combine." The House will remember that this "combine" already has large control of the railways of America, and that the intention is to make the same great combination control the shipping trade. What does this mean? It is clear it means that as soon as this Navigation Trust has got control of these ships, what it will do will be to give them special rates for all the freight they bring to or receive from the American railways—that vast system which covers the American continent. I think, if we may judge from the experience of the past, that they may also have a special premium on cargo carried, and possibly even preferential customs rates, for pressure will be exercised to give an advantage to ships within the combination at the expense of others which are not. Everything that is gained by this combination of ships and railways will be gained at the expense of the carrying trade of England, and that, I think, is a very serious aspect of the question. Of course I know there is this to be said, that those ships cannot possibly carry all that is to be carried across the Atlantic. I do not know what proportion the combination lines will carry, but it will probably not be very large, and, consequently, other ships will be left on the road for some time. But it will only be for some time. In the course of time the Shipping Laws are to 468 be under revision in the United States with one sole object, which is to increase the number of ships of the United States at the expense of this country; and, undoubtedly, the great feature and menace of this combination is that it does seem to propose in time to drive the British tramp, not only out of the Atlantic, but also out of the Australian and Pacific trade. I am not a very great advocate for Government interference in shipping matters. I think the Government has scarcely ever interfered with the Mercantile Marine of this country except to its disadvantage. Minute inspections are ordered often by incompetent persons who ordain things which are rather against shipping than for its good, such as the prohibition of use involved in the load line, and the prohibition of deck loads which can be carried with perfect safety in summer, a prohibition which has driven many ships from the British flag to the Norwegian flag because of the interference of the Board of Trade. I am not blaming the Board of Trade, or the President of the Board of Trade. It is the law that is to blame. In my opinion the effect of that law has been in most instances, and in none more than in the rules for tonnage measurement, to give an enormous advantage to the steamboat over the sailing ship, and to prevent the sailing ship from competing on equal terms. The effect of that has been to raise the freight of the sailing ship, and to raise the freight of the competitor steam ship, and since everything we consume is liable at one time or other to be carried, when you raise freights you raise the price of everything consumed in the country. Take again the rule of the road at sea. Every sort of mistake has been made, and I am afraid will continue to be made, so long as the Government interferes with the mercantile Marine. But this is a matter in which we are certainly entitled to ask some assistance, or suggestion, or proposal from the Government. We are at least entitled to expect that the Government should have knowledge of the matter, and such knowledge as it is at liberty to give to Parliament. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not say that 469 he knows all about it, but that the matter is of so confidential a character that he cannot impart it to the House. If he does say so, I hope he will give a specific answer to the question I have asked, whether the Foreign Office was informed of the combination, and why the Foreign Office has not imparted its intelligence to him.
Of course one will be asked—What can the Government do? It is quite clear, as the First Lord of the Treasury suggested today, that neither the Government nor this House could interfere to prevent a man from selling his shares in any company to anybody he pleases. That is certain, I do not think you can do it; but there are many other ways, direct and indirect, in which the Government might interfere to prevent so serious a thing as the loss of our carrying trade, which seems now to be directly menaced. I do not know whether it will long be possible to continue on the old lines on which we have stood with regard to the mercantile marine and trade generally. We have had revived, not indeed Protection, but a charge of 4 per cent. ad valorem duty on corn and flour brought into this country; and to that extent agriculturists will benefit. That suggestion might apply to something of the same sort in the shipping trade. That which you have done for the land you might conceivably do for the sea; that which you have done for farmers you might conceivably be able to do for shipowners. There are means by which that can be done, but it is not for me to say what the specific thing is that should be done. There is the experience of this country which we can look to. You have within the last few weeks revived a system that was brought an end to in 1869. Now you may be brought face to face with the possibility and even the necessity of reviving a system which was brought to an end only in 1849—I mean the navigation laws. If we are to be attacked in that most vital of the country's interests, our shipping trade, I think it behoves the Government to consider how long it can stand by the ancient ways, how long it can adhere to the policy of laissez faire et regardez passer, and divert its attention from 470 these matters. When the navigation laws were repealed in 1849, it was I expected that we were to be on the eve of universal peace, and we were engaged giving up everything. But they were most important and effective laws while they lasted. They encouraged British trade, and Adam Smith says they were the best of all the commercial regulations of England. These laws prohibited the importation into these kingdoms of any goods, the growth or produce from Asia, Africa, or America, except in British ships, of which three quarters of the crews were British subjects. These were restrictive laws, but they did help to build up the mercantile marine which then, as now, was threatened. It was being competed with, not indeed by America, but by Holland, and competed, with most effectively. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a suggestion as to what the Government ought to do let him turn up his Adam Smith and look into the navigation laws once more. After all, as I have said, this debate is rather one for inquiry of His Majesty's Government than anything else. We do think that in a matter of this extreme gravity, which has aroused so much attention in the country we are entitled to expect the Government shall have some information to communicate to the country. We are further entitled to ask the Government, as authoritative exponents of the law, what is really the effect of what has been done on the shipping and other national interests. Thirdly, I think we are entitled to ask whether the Government are prepared to adopt any new step in the very serious conjuncture that has arisen, and which constitutes, as I believe,. a grave menace to the important carrying trade of this country.
§ (5.7.) THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASUBY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
I rise at once to express a hope that this debate may be brought to a close as soon as possible. I quite recognise that, when the public outside are so much and so rightly interested in these new developments as they are, it is only natural and perhaps only proper that there should be some reflection of that interest in this House, and I do not, therefore, in the least desire to offer any criticism upon the course the hon. Gentleman opposite 471 has taken, and, indeed, as I hope the hon. Member noticed, his request for leave to make the Motion for adjournment was not challenged on this side of the House. At the same time, I am afraid it is impossible from the nature of the case that the present discussion can have any useful result.
My right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade and the Government generally have been reproached for having what is called no "official" information on the subject to impart to the House. I think there is considerable fallacy underlying the use of the word "official." Our information of what goes on in foreign countries is official when it comes from our ambassadors. It does not mean on that account that information is not obtained. Our ambassadors very often do not get their information from official sources. They get it, as we all pick up I information, in the country and among the community in which we live, but when it is communicated to us that is called official information. It is evident we cannot get official information of what goes on in this country unless it is something that falls under the purview of Government officials—the police, Government inspectors, or other officials of Government Departments. Butthere is no official of a Government Department naturally cognisant—I mean in the course of his duties—with the private transactions of British firms, witheachother's, or with foreigners'. Such information cannot be obtained in the nature of the case. The only way by which it could be obtained, would be to set up a system of inspection and perpetual cross-examination of members of the great mercantile community. Until the great mercantile community tolerates such an interference with their affairs and are prepared to give information to this inquisitorial body, it is clear that information of the arrangements of private individuals and firms must, in so far as it comes from the Government, be of a non-official character. But that does not mean that the Government have not had for many weeks their attention anxiously directed to the matter, or that they have not obtained a great deal of information on the subject, which may not absolutely cover the whole ground, but which, I think, is adequate both in general outline and 472 in its details. But that information, in so far as it supplements a matter of common and public knowledge, was given under the seal of secrecy. To ask us to break that seal would be asking us not merely to do that which honourable men cannot do, but which would shut up those very sources of information which it is most important should be kept open. If any gentleman who has access to private information comes to the Government and says, "There is something going on which you ought to know, but do not mention my name, and where you got the information from," and if that gentleman finds out afterwards that, under pressure from the House of Commons, we divulged the whole thing, it is quite clear that in future we shall not get that class of information which it may be, and is, for the highest interests of the country should be given to us in large and full measure. I hope, therefore, that neither the House nor the country will be under any illusion as to the fact that we have information and that, in so far as that information may be required to add to or supplement the broad general outlines of what is going on already well known to the public, it is of a confidential character and cannot, at the present stage of matters at all events, be with advantage given to the House. The House will further see that, as the Government are not neglecting this matter, as they are in communication with persons who are deeply interested in the matter, it really would be a great mistake at this stage of affairs to have a debate in the House upon it or to attempt to elicit more information than it is possible to give. I may very briefly say that it is quite clear from the speeches; that have been delivered, and indeed from the very nature of the case under consideration, that the subject is divided into two widely different portions. There is the portion which has reference to the position of the Navy and the mercantile cruisers which the Government have at their disposal in case of war. I think the House has been already told that arrangements have been come to by which those cruisers on which we have a lien by reason of the fact that we have given a subvention to them and which belonged to the companies which have joined the combination are safe. They are safe, 473 whatever may happen, for the term of I years for which the original contract was entered into by the Admiralty.
§ MR. EDMUND ROBERTSON (Dundee)
Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that they will be excluded from this arrangement?
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
No, Sir. I do not mean that. I mean that, for naval purposes, the control of the Admiralty over them will be as complete as if the combination had never taken place, and at the end of three years it is by no means certain—perhaps it is even by no means probable—that those ships will change their flag. We have thus secured our position for three years, and in those three years I think the Government will be very much to blame if they cannot find some means of adequately providing for the cruiser force of the country. Whether we are to provide for it by making new and different arrangements with regard to our mercantile cruisers, or whether we are to supplement our force in some other way, it would be quite premature to make a statement on the subject. But it is clear that we have time to turn round, and it will be the duty of the Government to see that, whatever injury may be done to other interests, at all events the efficiency of the Navy will not be interfered with. That is one branch of the subject, and, in my judgment, by far the easiest branch, which naturally falls within the duty of the Government to undertake. But when I come to the other branch of the subject, which has been referred to by both the mover and the seconder of the Motion, and which will be, no doubt, referred to by others in this debate—namely, the general effect upon our maritime position by what has taken place—we are evidently opening a subject of far greater difficulty and complexity than that which is touched upon by the mere question of naval cruisers, and are brought face to face with problems not only novel in their character but of very great difficulty and complexity.
I listened to the mover and seconder with wonder and interest in order to see whether they had any suggestions to make, and, if so, what they were and how they proposed to carry them out. Unless my attention wandered for a 474 moment, the mover made no suggestion at all. He did not throw out even the most shadowy hint of what he would like to see done, either by the mercantile community itself or by the Government in connection with the mercantile community, to deal with the new aspect of affairs which has arisen. The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down was not so reticent, not so absolutely barren in the constructive element. He had two suggestions to make. The first was that we should have a universal bounty upon British ships, and the other was that we should revive the old navigation laws. I am not going to enlarge upon the question of bounties or upon the merits or demerits of the navigation laws; but it is perfectly evident that to have a debate on those questions in connection with a problem which has only arisen within the last few weeks on a Motion for adjournment is not to further the sober, serious, and careful consideration of the very difficult questions with which we have to deal It is quite clear that those who think with the mover and the seconder that this combination—which, it is to be remarked, is not a Government combination, is not a commercial enterprise engineered and officered by a foreign and hostile Government, but is simply a trade combination of foreign capitalists—so menaces the commerce of this country that the Government should intervene and take steps to deal with it, are admitting, whether they like it or not, that the old doctrines of individual enterprise have broken down, and that the regimen of unrestricted competition, and of leaving each man to do his best in a free market to make the greatest profit he can, will have to be supplemented by a policy which a great number of Gentlemen in this House have long thought to be antiquated and outworn. I only mention this to show how big, how complicated, and how difficult are the issues involved, and I do not suppose that either my hon. friend the Member for King's Lynn, or anybody else who has spoken or is likely to speak in this debate, will expect that the Government are going to make any announcement in respect to a departure from the traditional policy of this country on the spur of the moment, without prolonged 475 and anxious investigation and without considering the problem from every side. Under these circumstances I would venture to suggest that nothing will be gained by any prolongation of this debate. Of the two aspects of the problem, one does not seem to me difficult to deal with, and the Government are bound to deal with it. On the other aspect of the problem—the more complicated, perhaps the more important, aspect—we certainly have no policy to announce, and I think we should show ourselves utterly unworthy to deal with the affairs of a great commercial country like this if we were to show ourselves such charlatans in finance as to come down here with a ready-made proposition to deal with a new situation.
§ (5.25.) MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)
After what has been Said by the right hon. Gentleman, I will say only the fewest possible words on this subject. I am sure neither the mover nor the seconder of the Motion, nor any one else in this House, will blame the. Government for speaking with the greatest caution and reserve on this subject, and I should be the last person to wish to press them to go at all beyond what they have said through the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman. At the same time, the right hon. Gentleman must admit that my hon. friend was justified, by the small knowledge which the country has on the subject, and by the great anxiety which prevails in all commercial and mercantile circles, in giving the Government the opportunity for making their statements, and of assuring the House that they are alive to the gravity of the questions which this combination has raised. While we should not now enter on any prolonged discussion of the very numerous and complicated issues which are involved, it may be stated that the Motion has not been brought forward in any hostile spirit to the Government, and I have no doubt my hon. friend will not be disposed to press it to a division, but will withdraw it when the object for which it has been moved has been attained. The right hon. Gentleman said with perfect truth hat there are two aspects to this question—the commercial aspect and the Naval aspect; and I am sure he did not exaggerate the extraordinary difficulty 476 of dealing with the commercial side of this question. It is extremely difficult, not only because we do not know the facts, but because we all know that the history of similar combinations in other countries shows how excessively difficult it is to deal with matters of this kind. We have already certain powers with reference to the registration of British ships which may or may not be put in force, but it is obvious that these powers go a very little way towards meeting the difficulty which these combinations bring about. These developments of commerce are the result of the creation of great masses of capital, and the operations of commerce on a gigantic scale in the countries where capital has reached its largest accumulation, and where the field is large. These things are not new across the Atlantic. It is now about fifteen years since the great system of trusts began to darken the commercial sky in the United States. During those years Congress and the State Legislatures have made every possible effort to grapple with and restrain the operations of these enormous accumulations of capital, and although it is dangerous to speak positively on so large a subject, I think I am safe in saying that all these efforts, under pressure of an extremely excited public opinion, which one at least of the great parties endeavoured to useand stimulate for political purposes, have had scarcely anysuccess, and that the power of the trusts continues to dominate American commerce at least as much as when these efforts began. That shows the extraordinary difficulty of endeavouring by legislation to interfere with commercial combinations under contract law. If these difficulties are great where we have only to deal with combinations in one country only, how much greater must they be where we have to deal with international combinations; and the political difficulty in the background must further complicate the problem. I should, therefore, be the last person in the world to ask the Government to make any immediate or definite promise as to how the purchase side of this matter should be dealt with. I am quite sure they will find, if they endeavour to consider legislation, abundant food for reflection in the trust legislation of the United States, and a warning, also, 477 not to attempt impossible or hasty legislation. Therefore, I say my hon. friend is not open to the comment of the right hon. Gentleman, because he is a private Member, and we, like himself, are imperfectly acquainted with the facts. It is for him to call attention to the case and give the Government an opportunity of stating their views on the naval aspect of the case. Then the question of subsidies becomes a very important one and it is not unimportant to observe that the German Government appear to have taken steps from the first for the distinct reservation of their rights, a reservation which does not appear to have been made as far as the British Government is concerned. There is also the question of the Naval Reserve and of our seamen generally, which is very important. I think the Government may fairly be asked to press on the inquiry, and to endeavour to state at no distant date what views they take and what practical steps they propose in regard to the naval aspect of the matter. I think I may say that the House will be ready, if legislation is thought necessary, to put aside other business in order to find a place for a matter which so vitally affects the commercial interests of the country.
§ (5.35.) MR. RUSSELL REA (Gloucester)
I am glad this question has come up for discussion in this House, for it is one that has naturally, but, I think, somewhat excessively, disturbed the public mind, and it is well that any Member who is acquainted with the Atlantic trade and the circumstances that have led, and, I think, have inevitably led, up to the present international combination, should have an opportunity to state what has been done and how it affects the national interests. A great amount of alarm and suspicion has been excited in the public mind, and the Press has made it the question of the hour. This excitement and suspicion I regard as ill-informed and disproportioned to its cause, therefore mischievous. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the speech of the hon. Member for King's Lynn, who actually goes so far as to recommend a revival of the old navigation laws.
I should like to explain to the House, as shortly as I can, the conditions of the Atlantic trade that have made the present action of those who control the trade 478 natural and necessary. The lines which are affected are the great freight lines, the great cargo carrying lines. It is true that the White Star Line has a fine weekly mail service, sailing under the British flag, of which we have all reason to be proud, but they are also the owners of the largest cargo boats in the world—such a steamer as the "Celtic," for example, will carry ten or twelve times as much cargo as a mail steamer such as the "Campania" can afford to carry. In the differentiation caused by the expansion of this great trade, the mail steamers have ceased to carry any cargo but a small quantity of fine goods, and this is not what the originators of this combination aimed at.
The raison d'être of the great cargo lines is the conveyance of the crops, cattle, and produce of the Western States to Europe; it is from this source they derive practically their whole revenue. This produce is brought to the American ports by five—or, if you include the Grand Trunk, six—trunk lines—the Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Ohio, New York Central, Erie and Chesapeake, and Ohio Companies. Until a short time ago each of these lines was in the habit of making a separate arrangement with one or more of the steamship lines for the carriage of their produce destined for Europe. But, in the working, these arrangements proved to be very inadequate and unsatisfactory. The confusion, the delay, the cost of the exchange and transhipment of this enormous weight of produce, was a serious difficulty in the trade. The steamships were worked by their owners for their own ends, which were not always those of the railway companies—sometimes to compote with or embarrass rivals. As a consequence, it was not infrequent for sufficient cargo to be at the ports to load three steamers, and no steamer there to receive it. At other times three steamers might be together waiting for cargo. I have known one of the railway companies have as many as 1,000 great American freight wagons at the port waiting for a ship for a whole month.
This state of things, always embarrassing and costly, was naturally pronounced intolerable when the possibility of a remedy appeared in sight, and this possibility became clear when the four great trunk lines came under one management, and, so far as the public is concerned, 479 one undertaking—by far the largest and wealthiest commercial association in the world. When they considered the situation they determined that the through service to Europe should be organised in co-operation with the continental land services. This was a natural and inevitable development. The American Trunk lines are now so united that they form, so far as the outside public are concerned, one association. Their mind is one mind, and their policy is one policy. It was not humanly possible to expect they would submit, at the cost of infinite confusion and loss, to have their vast traffic, destined for Europe, interrupted at the ports, as for the present anarchy to continue. It is a vital matter for them to be able to direct the movements of freight steamers, to allot their ports, and fix their dates of sailing. It is equally for the advantage of the ships, for economy and efficiency in working, that this should be done. This was the problem, and it was the whole problem, that was presented to the directors of the Associated Railway Companies in America. The question of cruisers did not enter into it. How were they to solve it—by co-operation with the existing organisations or by competition with them? They chose—and I rejoice that they did choose—international co-operation, instead of a long, bitter, and costly competition. To the shipowners the same choice was then presented, and, so far as they were concerned, I must confess the choice was not quite so free. They were offered fair and even generous terms for an association of interests, and the alternative was practically extinction, so far as the trade in which they are now engaged is concerned. For, Sir, suppose for one moment the English Lines—the White Star, the Leyland, and the Dominion—had elected to compete with the new steamers which would have been built to be added to those the Americans already own—viz., those of the American Red Star and Atlantic Transport Lines—they would have been playing a, game in which their adversaries held all the trump cards. For—and I hope the House will observe this—not less than four-fifths of the freight revenue of all the great Atlantic cargo 480 lines originates on the lines of the Companies I have mentioned, and is under their absolute control as to its disposal; further, at least three out of four of the first-class passengers by these steamers are Americans, who would naturally give a preference to vessels under their own flag, other things being equal, if such were provided, and they would have been provided. And even the emigrant trade would not be under the control of the European lines, for I believe I am right—in fact, I know I am right—in saying that the passages of more than half the emigrants to America are paid by their friends in America; so that even this trade is controlled in greater part across the ocean. Therefore, I, for my part, am glad the English steamship owners accepted the alliance; and I believe they adopted, not only the prudent but the patriotic part under existing circumstances which were not of their making in doing so.
Doubtless the question arises in the minds of hon. Members.—Is it alliance and co-operation, or is it annexation and absorption? I say it is co-operation, and not absorption. The capital engaged in the united enterprise is not wholly American capital: it is largely British capital. I cannot give exact figures, but the House may take it that at present it stands at about four of British to five of American, and the American owned ships for the most part sail under the British flag. And there is no reason in the world why Englishmen should not, if they choose, purchase the small amount more necessary to give them a working majority. But since when have we objected to the investment of foreign capital in this country? Such an objection would come strangely from the nation having itself the largest foreign investments of any nation. And, at the present moment, our British investments in America are larger, infinitely larger, than any or all American investments in this country. Such an objective would be a preposterous self-stultification. There is no conspiracy to drive the Union Jack from the ocean, even from the Atlantic Ocean: there is no desire to do so. It is the interest of all concerned to maintain practically the status quo in this respect, the status quo cum 481 efficiency; but preposterous as I regard it, and as it is, for one moment allow me to assume that all these ships have hoisted the American flag, and come under American registration—what would be the effect of this in time of war? Take first the case of war with a European power or coalition. In this case our food supply would be secure, under a friendly neutral flag, our enormous common maritime interests, and the complications that would arise would almost certainly force America to our side, and we should be spared the necessity of policing the Atlantic. And in the case of the horrible and morally impossible event of a war with America, it would matter little under which flag these steamers might be, for they could not take the sea in their usual trades at all—that trade would be stopped, and these gigantic freight steamers are not fitted for other trades; few ports can receive them and load them, and no other trade could be organised in the hurry and stress of such a war.
But, Sir, I consider these speculations idle; the possibility of these ships changing their nationality is not within the range of sight. American opinion never was so strong against admitting foreign-built tonnage to their register as it is at present. But it will be objected that the object of America is not to naturalise foreign ships, but to build their own; and the Subsidy Bill of this year is a proof of such an intention. It should be remarked that the total amount of the subsidy was limited by the Senate to a comparatively small sum, so that its effects could not have been large, and it seems to have little chance of passing the House of Representatives. It is curious to notice, that the shipowners of America—and there is an enormous shipping interest engaged in what they call the coasting trade—complain that this "combine" has killed the chance of the Subsidy Bill of Senator Frye. But I would not undertake to prophesy that a similar Bill may not become law some day. It must be understood, however, that the theory and the calculation of those who designed and support it, is to give equality of opportunity to American and foreign ships, and I do not believe 482 the subsidies, under the scale proposed, would do more than this under present conditions. To begin with, an American built ship costs 33 per cent. more to build, and this adds this 33 per cent. to the expense of interest, depreciation, and insurance. The ship, under the American register, must employ American citizens as captains and officers and half of the crow. No American-born citizen will take employment, for example, as a fireman. The supply of firemen has to be kept up from the freshly-imported and naturalised foreigner. in the fireman's quarters of the American Line steamers, for example, you will hear little English spoken by the newly-imported citizens. Yet these men demand, and are paid, £,1 and £8 a month, as against about £5 15s. paid on English ships, and considerably less on German ships. To feed and wait upon these American citizens costs 20 per cent. more than to feed and attend to the English firemen. It is so all round. Therefore, it may be taken for granted that the American flag is too expensive a luxury to be indulged in to any great extent at present, and is likely to remain so for an indefinite future period. The experience of the American Line illustrates this well. The ss. "City of Paris" and "City of New York" passed to the American flag and register by special Act of Congress, which imposed upon the owners the obligation to build the "St. Louis" and "St. Paul," equal ships to the former, in America. The American Line have never found it to their advantage to build another ship in America, but they have built numerous other vessels in this country, which sail under the British and Belgian flags although they are American owned.
When, a few moments ago, I alluded to an American competition which would be effective, in fact irresistible, I had, of course, in my mind American owned ships, built in this country and sailing under the British flag, and registered in British Custom Houses, failing a compensating subsidy for American built ships. Were it the intention of this combination to change the nationality of the steamers they control, it would be greatly more to their advantage to adopt a Scandinavian or German nationality than the American. There is one curious point of American registration law, however, to which I have not seen attention called. None of these 483 onerous obligations attach to ships engaged in an entirely foreign trade, and never sailing from American ports. In this case, an American citizen may own and register a foreign built ship with a foreign crew. It is conceivable, therefore, that, if the combination were purely American, as it is not, and wished to do such a thing, which they do not, they might run the White Star service to the Cape and to Australia under the American flag, without incurring any obligations in consequence of the change.
But the portion of this question that chiefly interests this House is,—What will be the position of the country in connection with the subsidised cruisers of the White Star Line? In my opinion, the position must remain exactly as it is at present. If it is true that no notice of any change was given by the owners to the Admiralty, the explanation is clearly that no notice was required, because no change was made. The obligation as regards the present ships remains, and it will, doubtless, be fulfilled to the letter. And as regards new fast British mail steamers to be built in the future, why should not similar obligations be entered into, and in like manner fulfilled? The steamers will be none the worse because they are partly American owned. The ss. "City of Paris" and "City of New York" were American owned to the extent of 90 per cent. when they were built, but the British Government did not refuse to accept and subsidise them on that account. It is true that, in consequence of their foreign ownership, the Admiralty did make a somewhat different bargain from that made with the Cunard or White Star Lines. They held from two to three years pay in hand, to be forfeited should the nationality of these steamers be changed, and I believe this money was, in fact, forfeited. But the Admiralty made no rule that all British ships employed by them should have none but British owners. Why should they do so now? The fact that fast mail steamers are concerned in this combination is an accident of the scheme. Its essence and cause was the freight trade. At present they possess one weekly mail service sailing under the American flag to Southampton, and one weekly mail service, under the British flag, to Queenstown and Liverpool. This seems to me to be a fair working arrangement, 484 and so long as there are no signs of its being disturbed, I can see no cause for the public mind to be agitated. And this seems to me to be the basis upon which the international combination is likely to proceed, and, I believe, is one upon which it can probably be arranged that they shall proceed. I believe it is more probable that the mail steamers from Southampton will, in the future, sail under the British flag, than that the White Star mail steamers will ever sail under the Stars and Stripes.
Sir, Lord Melbourne is credited with the authorship of the advice to "take short views." This has always appeared to me to be a fatally false maxim in politics. If, instead of "taking a short view," we take a long view and a broad view of the situation presented to us, by this most natural, and in fact, inevitable development of commerce, I think we shall find little cause for dissatisfaction, and none for panic.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
May I venture to appeal to the House, for the reasons I have already stated, now to finish the debate?
§ (6.0.). LORD CHARLES BERESFORD (Woolwich)
I am sorry to come between the right hon. Gentleman and the next business, but I will not detain the House long. From my point of view this is one of the most important matters ever brought before the House, because it may, I do not say it will, affect the whole trade and commerce of the country. As far as I can gather, our kinsmen across the water, who are very clever people, have got the control and management of this combine, or if they have not got it now they very soon will have it by getting hold of all the shares, no matter what flag the steamers run under. The possibility in that is that they will be able to land in this country the whole of the production of their enormous trusts to our disadvantage in great volume, and, therefore, at a cheaper price. I have taken the trouble to look up the number of these trusts, and I find that there are the Leather Trust, the Steel Trust, the Tobacco Trust, the Cotton Milling Trust, the Cement Trust, the Rubber Trust, the Lead Trust, the Beef Trust, the Goal Combine, and others. 485 Let the House imagine it being in the power, as it is now, of the railway companies to say to the owners of the steamers, "We will guarantee you against any loss you may suffer for the next three years as long as you take only the goods of these trusts." I conceive this to be a most important and anxious subject, and I am borne out in my ideas by the fact that every paper has taken the matter up, and there is no man interested in the trade and commerce of this country who does not hold the view that the result may be most serious to our trade and commerce. I quite agree with my hon. friend when he asks, "What can the Government do?" The Government cannot control any individual in the right to sell his own property. We can all sell our hats if we like, and the Government cannot stop us. They cannot stop any company selling their ships, but they can guide public opinion, and I disagree with my right hon. friend when he says it is unwise to bring this matter forward.
§ LORD CHARLES BERESFORD
At any rate, my right hon. friend is not quite logical, because he said that the mover and seconder of the motion never proposed anything in mitigation of the difficulty, and at the same time said, as I understood him, that this is not quite the moment for the matter to be brought forward. The point is that we are gradually losing our commercial supremacy at sea and that is a very serious thing. Up to ten years ago we owned the shipping company with the largest tonnage. Now we run third in the list. I think that is a matter for serious consideration. It will be quite possible if this control of American trusts lasts for them to put in preferential rates, and that would certainly not be to our advantage at all. The matter brought forward by the hon. Member for King's Lynn is a very serious question, and we should be able to get cruisers somehow if we go to war. We ought to prepare in peace for what we shall want in war. If we lose our trade and commerce through these trusts and combinations we shall be in a position 486 that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to think about, because he will not be able to tax the people to keep up the naval and military forces as they should be kept up. Why should we not grasp the possibilities that might occur and subsidise steamers to be built for the Canadian route and use that route? We are face to face with the fact that on the other side of the water there are 80,000,000 people with illimitable resources, and our only plan is to divide these 80,000,000 into two parts. My belief is that the whole of the American traders do not want to be under these trusts, and if we can start a line to Canada which will be shorter and cheaper, I believe those American traders and merchants who do not want to be under the trusts would use that line. One speaker called attention to the fact that American Steamers have the advantage of the coastwise system. A British steamer which goes to New York cannot ship a cargo there for San Francisco. I cannot see why we should not do something of that kind. I quite agree that it would be a very dangerous and difficult thing to bring back the navigation laws. We would like to have them, but how are we to get them? My right hon. friend made a very curious statement with regard to what is called "official information." It is not quite clear to me what my right hon. friend means. The use of such a term in the way it was used is very bewildering, because it is clear that the Government have never looked at or grasped this matter when they speak of "official information."
§ MR. GERALD BALFOUR
was understood to say that he had expressly stated that, while he had no official information, he had information from other sources.
§ LORD CHARLES BERESFORD
Why does my right hon. friend use a term which is so misleading and which has brought so much opprobrium on the Government, which it does not deserve? As far as I am concerned, I hope the question will be threshed out in the House, and that very shortly, because although public men cannot exactly put forward a definite line, still it is our duty to point out the results of what may occur when such 487 enormous interests are concerned. My own belief is that the Americans mean to control shipping. They begun with the ocean greyhounds and mail steamers, and I do not believe it will be very long before they take possession also of the tramps, and when they do that it will be a very serious thing for this country.
§ (6.10.) MR. WILLIAM ALLAN (Gateshead)
My own opinion is that this is a storm in a teacup. If we look at the matter from a practical point of view we are face to face with this question. Granted that a certain number of American millionaires have bought up certain lines of steamships owned in this country, what would happen if they had not done that, but had put their money together to build vessels to run against our own lines? They have bought our vessels and intend to run them in the North Atlantic trade for this reason. They command the whole of the goods that come over the railways of the United States. They deliver those goods at Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. The White Star Line has been building enormous cargo boats, and has practically depended on American goods supplying them with cargoes. Suppose Americans kept away from the White Star Line altogether and built other boats, where would the White Star Line look for cargoes? They could not get them. Thus the White Star Line has been practically forced into the combine. Things derogatory to this nation have been said. People are beginning to be afraid of the stability of the country. I am not at all afraid of it. Hon. Members talk about these vessels as cruisers. They are not cruisers at all. They tell us that these vessels go twenty or twenty-one knots, but that does not make them cruisers. Any boat might be called a cruiser if a gun or two were put on her. A pom-pom bullet would go through the hull of any of these vessels. I do not like to see the feeling growing that this country is going to the dogs simply because our steamers are being bought up. We can build others and beat the combine any day if our millionaires will join together. I see nothing to fear in all this. American merchants and brokers are 488 buying up British steamers, and let them do it. How can we stop them? You cannot do it. I want the House to look at this from a business point of view. I do not want people to run away with the idea that the Union Jack is being, lowered. Not a bit of it. It will not be lowered—it cannot be lowered. There has not been brought before this House in all this discussion a very curious fact which is well known to all my ship-owning friends. Take your Australian "ring" of steamers in this country and your African "ring." If you do not belong to that "ring" you cannot get a cargo. Surely that is monopoly up to the hilt. Therefore you have monopoly already in this country. Let us not blame this "combine," but let them buy up the whole lot, for we can build others and compete against them. I greatly deprecate the feeling of alarm which appears to be running through this House. I do not like to see it, for it is contrary to the patriotic feelings of true Britons.
§ ((3.15.) MR. CHARLES M'ARTHUR (Liverpool, Exchange)
I feel it my duty, as one of the representatives of Liverpool, to say one or two words upon this subject. I do not plead on behalf of those concerned with the "combine." I speak on behalf of the general public, and on behalf of some shipowners who are not in the "combine." I may say that there is a very great feeling of alarm and apprehension in Liverpool and throughout the country in regard to this matter. There is no doubt that we are very imperfectly informed as to the nature of this combination. The only statement we have is one from the White Star Line, in which they say they have entered into an arrangement for securing "community of interest." We have been told that this is not a sale. I venture to point out that whether it is a sale or not there is no doubt that the headquarters of this concern will be in the United States, and it will be practically a United States Trust. That is very important, and after the remarks which have fallen from the President of the Board of Trade and the First Lord of the Treasury I cannot help feeling that the subject has been approached in rather a theoretical manner. While we are talking 489 here this "combine" is acting, and they are putting pressure upon other Lines which have hitherto been independent to enter the "combine,' and they are offering very strong inducements, and threatening that if they do not join they will attack them. Therefore the question viewed from that standpoint is one of great urgency. What is the object of this? The object has been, clearly indicated in all the speeches. The object of this combination, in my judgment, is to obtain a monopoly of the Atlantic trade, and no doubt, following the course of other American Trusts, this trust will make use of every possible means to accomplish its end. If such a result is brought about, it will be most detrimental to English trade and commerce. It will transfer the ownership of much of our shipping to the other side of the Atlantic. If the ships become American, the crews will become American, and the supply of coal and the insurance will become American. We cannot realise now the extent to which there will be a transfer of trade of all sorts and descriptions from this country. Therefore I say it is a difficult and delicate question. I do not see how this House is to interfere, but I do not think we should shrink from realising the gravity of the situation. I think they have a perfect right of doing what they like with their own property within the law, but nevertheless, when the American Trust system is introduced to our shipping, it is calculated to bring about disaster. We should look at the question from two points of view. Firstly, from the general point of view, I believe we shall have to reconsider our policy with regard to the mercantile marine of this country. That is a matter which would require a great deal of time to consider and discuss, but while Nero is fiddling, Rome is burning. It seems to me, in the second place, that our shipowners outside the combination must arouse themselves and see in what way they can protect their own interests against those of this great combination. I agree that the only thing that the Government can do at this conjuncture is to strengthen the hands of independent lines and to endeavour, by giving their support to those companies who will refuse to transfer their business in any 490 way to the United States, to keep open those lines which are owned by patriotic men.
§ (6.20.) COLONEL PILKINGTON (Lancashire, Newton)
My hon. friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool has put this matter very properly. It may be very well for hon. Members opposite and an hon. friend who spoke on this side to minimise the position, but all mercantile men know that it is most grave and serious. It will in my opinion spell disaster to the working class and to the mercantile class of this country unless this thing, somehow or other, can, let us say by good luck or good management, be stopped. How is it to be stopped? Somehow or other the German Emperor has stopped it. This question ought at once to be most seriously considered by the Government, and the reason why I have risen to speak is because I am not sure that the Government do take a sufficiently grave view of the matter. We are so accustomed to the doctrine of laissez faire, of letting everything go, and waiting till everything has gone, that I fear, unless the Government wake up quickly and lock the door before the horses are stolen, serious injury will be; done. One horse has been stolen from the stable, but how many more will be stolen? It seems to me that we must make a new departure. The shippingtrade of Liverpool will be seriously hit. The coal trade will also be seriously hit. What will happen if, after twelve months, we find that this great shipping combination has bought up more shipping companies in America? The steamship lines unite this Empire together, and the question in whose hands they are is one of imperial importance. I think when the Premier of this country is brought face to face with the Premiers of the Colonies, this question will be one of the greatest they will have to discuss. For any member of the Government to get up and say, "What are we to do?" is not the right position. The newspapers of the country are most rightly commenting on this most serious situation, and there is not a Member of this House who does not say that this is a most serious question. It is a national question. I do not think the men who have sold these ships have followed the example of 491 patriotism set by their fellow-countrymen who went out and died in South Africa. They have sold, I was going to say, some part of their country—no doubt to a friendly Power now, and one of our own blood. The more difficult the problem with which the Government find themselves confronted, the more attention they ought to give to it, with the view of doing something which may not only stop the alarm that is felt, but the disaster which I feel sure will come unless something is done.
§ (6.28.) MR. DAVID MACIVER (Liverpool, Kirkdale)
I happen to be the Member for that particular part of Liverpool which includes the docks, where the steamers belonging to the "combine," and those that do not, load and discharge their cargoes. I spent the best years of my life in the Liverpool management of the Cunard steamships. I had eighteen years association with that company; but I ought to tell the House that it is twenty-seven years since I had any such association. I have nothing to do today with any of the North American liners. I am speaking now entirely for myself, with my knowledge of the past; but I am still a shipowner, and I know pretty well what is going on. I find myself very much in accord with what fell from the hon. Member for King's Lynn, so far as generalities are concerned; but when he came to particular instances, I cannot help feeling that he has drawn a good deal upon his imagination. I know enough about the matter to know that my hon. friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Russell Rea) who spoke on the other side came very near the truth in the statements which he made. I think there is much more of cooperation than of absorption. There are certainly companies which have been absorbed, such as the Inman and International Line, the Leyland Line, the West India and Pacific Company, the National Company, the Atlantic Transport Company and several others. These have been absorbed, there is no doubt about that. It is a matter of public notoriety, and the story has been told in the press, but there is no proof whatever that the others have done anything more than make arrangements for friendly co-operation, and I maintain perfectly reasonable business 492 co-operation with the gentlemen who control the "combine." I should like to say that in my judgment there is absolutely nothing dishonourable in anything that has been done. It has been suggested, or even stated, that it is unpatriotic. I maintain, and I know it, that the gentlemen principally connected with this combine on both sides of the Atlantic are gentlemen of the highest personal honour and integrity. It is unfortunate that the trade between the two sides of the Atlantic has become much more of an American than a British trade. I am old enough to remember when it was difficult to get return cargoes from the United States. A combination between American railways and Transatlantic steamers is not a new thing. Thirty years ago I myself, with the general manager of the Boston and Albany Railway, bought many thousands of tons of Indian corn which belonged partly to the railway company and partly to the Cunard Company, which brought it to this country. Those days are entirely changed. The American system of protection under which they exclude our manufactures has every day lessened the importance of the trade from this country to the United States. Our worship of the Free Trade fetish has had the effect of enormously increasing the American control of the trade of this country. We take enormous quantities of American produce which might perfectly well be got from our own colonies and dependencies. This shipping combine is one of the messes in which our Free Trade system has landed us. I am one of those who believe, with my hon. friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool, that the time has come when at the earliest opportunity the whole question of the present position of British mercantile shipping ought to be reconsidered. British shipowners do not want bounties; but they want a fair field and no favour, and I do not ask for more than this. I should like to say one word on the subsidies to armed cruisers. I do not agree with the view of my hon. friend the Member for Gateshead, and still less do I agree with the view of my hon. friend the Member for King's Lynn. I 493 am much more a believer in the view of the German Emperor. He knows how to have subsidised cruisers and how to retain them. We, with our system of Free Trade run mad, do not retain the control of our merchant shipping as I think we ought to do. The average shipowner who has no concern with armoured cruisers, and I am one of them, does not favour subsidies to his business competitors. It is quite a mistake to suppose that the average shipowner has any personal interest in seeing cruisers subsidised. I am therefore not speaking from the personal point of view: but I think it is strongly the interest of this country, in every way it can, to encourage the building of fast steamers and to retain the control, as the German Emperor retains the control, of them. I think on patriotic grounds it would be the greatest mistake to go back on the policy of subsidising cruisers. We must retain them, and the country must give enough to make it worth while for the great mail companies to build the right class of ships.
§ (6.32.) MR. CHANNING (Northamptonshire, E.)
I only wish to say on behalf of a good many Members on this side of the House who are interested in this question that they cannot accept the statement of the First Lord of the Treasury as in any way satisfactory or conclusive with regard to this matter, and that we shall claim on this side, and I have no doubt hon. Members on the other side will also, some opportunity for thoroughly discussing the economic and mercantile aspects of this great question.
§ MR. ALEXANDER CROSS (Glasgow, Camlachie)
said he represented an important constituency and desired to say a few words in relation to the action taken by the First Lord of the Treasury. The right hon. Gentleman had told the House the only two possible aspects of the way in winch he could deal with the question. What could he do more than he bad promised to do? Was the Government to protect ships because it had protected corn? There was no occasion for the Government to interfere. The conclusion which the right hon. Gentleman bad come to was that conclusion which every practical man 494 must come to. Unless we were prepared to shut our ports against foreign ships, or to subsidise our ships—a polity which, at all events, up till now no one had advocated—what could we do but look on and see the result accomplished. But there was no need for the country to take panic. By the operations of natural laws these combinations were ultimately bound to decay, and our shipping, which under the operation of the same laws had become the greatest in the world, would survive. Bounties and subsidies were not now the power in the shipping trade that they were. They had been tried by France and America for a longtime, but English sailing ships were in the past more numerous than those of any other country, and since steamships had come into existence English intelligence and energy had outstripped and left far behind all those countries who had tried to increase their shipping by bounties and subsidies.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.