§ Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Amendment to Question [9th June], "That the Bill be now read a second time."
Which Amendment was—
To leave out from the word 'That,' to the end of the Question in order to add the words, 'This House considers that the financial policy of His Majesty's Government, in the remission of indirect taxation imposed only last year for purposes of a permanent character, involves a needless and injurious disturbance of trade and a serious loss to the Revenue, without substantial relief to the consumer; and that, if any remission of indirect taxation is considered necessary by His Majesty's Government, such remission ought to be made by a reduction of the duties proposed to be levied on tea or other articles of general consumption.'"—(Mr. Chaplin.)
§ Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ Debate resumed.
§ *MR. AUSTIN TAYLOR (Liverpool, E. Toxteth)
The Amendment we have been discussing to-day has been rather overshadowed by certain larger issues which have come before us, and by certain dramatic, almost catastrophic developments which have taken place this afternoon. As a consequence, the question of the corn tax which was imposed last year by the Government, important as that departure was in their fiscal policy, does 399 not hold to-day the same prominent position in our minds that it did some time ago. Even though the interest in that tax has to a certain extent dwindled, a humble supporter of the Government, even if he sits below the Gangway—a position ordinarily associated with considerable independence—must yet find a certain difficulty in knowing what course to pursue. But I belong to a small, though perhaps fortunate, group of Members sitting on this side of the House who are in the position that whether we vote for the Amendment or against it, we shall not be guilty of any inconsistency. I was not in the House when the corn tax was imposed, and did not directly share the responsibility for its imposition, but I took, at the time of my election to this House, a certain position upon the question of the free import of food and raw materials into the country. Without any inspiration, official or otherwise, I placed in the forefront of my address a statement to the effect that I considered the free entry of food and raw materials into our ports a prime necessity for our industrial population. In taking up that position I had in mind that we were dealing in England, not with a new and undeveloped country, but with an old country, a highly-organised community, and a densely populated one, which has grown up during the last fifty years on the basis of a free entry of food for our industrial population, and of raw materials for our manufactures. Therefore, I cannot say that I hailed with particular enthusiasm the corn tax when it was first established. I still feel very strongly that we cannot play tricks with a country like England. In a highly-organised community, with an industrial population closely crowded together, we must not treat that community as a subject for experiment, but rather for delicate and careful fiscal treatment. But when the motive of the tax was fully explained by the late Chancellor, and we were assured it had nothing in it of a protective character, that it was meant simply for the purpose of broadening the basis of our taxation, forming a permanent part of our fiscal system, and contributing something towards the onerous expenditure of the war in South Africa, and further, that the tax itself was one almost infinitesimal in its character, I felt with many others on this side that it was a tax which might 400 very well form a permanent part of our fiscal system. But though I felt that, I further felt that there might be a certain danger even in the introduction of the principle of taxing the food of this country, though in so moderate a form, a principle which once established tends to develop. This lends itself to the protection of particular industries, and we cannot protect one industry without sooner or later being faced by a demand to protect them all. From that point of view I feel that we have to go warily in this matter, particularly as this country and the Empire rely in a peculiar degree upon its shipping and carrying trade.
The question of the free entry into our ports of food and raw materials is one which cannot possibly be dissociated from the prosperity of some at any rate of our leading manufacturing and industrial activities, and foremost amongst those I should place the shipping trade, which admittedly, whatever may be said about other trades in the country, has achieved a position of permanent prosperity under the free trade system which has enabled this country to secure the carrying trade of the world, and above all has furnished the one link on which the Empire must rely for cohesion—control of the seas and the maintenance of free and open communication between the different parts of the Empire. When I think of the position of the Empire and its possibilities I feel that in comparison with this question of our mercantile marine and the control of the seas all questions of a fiscal character as between one part of the Empire and another must take a subordinate place. I do not consider the tax is of a protectionist character. It is so minute that it is impossible to say by whom it is paid. But it is moonshine to say that it is paid by nobody. A burden of 4 per cent. on any industry must be borne by somebody. If in this particular case a certain amount falls upon the producer, a certain amount upon the railway companies, and a certain amount upon the consumer, that is not an argument that a considerable increase of the tax would not mean a very serious burden upon the great consuming public. A suggestion has been made by the Colonial Secretary that this duty has been paid by the railway companies of the United 401 States of America. My point is that this is not a duty on wheat alone, but that it is also a duty on barley, oats, and maize, and I find that in 1902 the amount of oats, barley and maize imported into this country does not fall far short of the amount of wheat and flour. I find we draw from Russia, Roumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the United States of America and the Argentine; that we import a total quantity of 191,000,000 cwt. of wheat-flour and feeding stuffs into these islands, and that of that quantity only 24,000,000 cwts., or one-eighth of the whole, comes from British dominions beyond the sea. That shows that one fact not to be overlooked in the discussion of this matter is the large source of supply from which we draw our food, and perhaps also the importance of keeping the area as wide as we can make it. Looking at those figures as a whole we can surely come to this conclusion: that any remission of this duty such as has been proposed, or such as was at one time contemplated, to allow for the free admission from British dominions beyond the seas would have been of a much more trifling character than would be imagined by many who looked on this as a tax on food and flour alone.
We have had an interesting discussion to-day as to the motives of the Government for repealing this tax. Though I was not in the House at the debates on the imposition of this tax, I have come to the conclusion that every argument that has been brought forward in favour of the repeal of this tax was clearly an argument against its imposition. I must on that point, which is the only one in which I agree with him, associate myself with the right hon. Member for Sleaford, who said these arguments about the unpopularity of the tax and all the other arguments in favour of its repeal were arguments against its imposition. But I do not want to bring vinegar to wounds already bleeding sufficiently. Certainly my reading of Parliamentary history does not recall so extraordinary a position as that in which we are now placed. I could say a good deal on this subject, but that is not my business. I do not think it is the duty of a supporter of the Government to do what has 402 been already so effectively done by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. If the repeal of this duty is a matter of party tactics; if it is done because the Government thought it was unpopular in the country, then it is an expression of the greatest futility and ineptitude. I cannot believe, although it has been stated, that this is the real motive that lies behind the repeal of this tax. But then I am confronted with this difficulty, that on fiscal principles its repeal is equally difficult to understand, because the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I think the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, are not indisposed to admit that this tax, small in its character and innocuous in its results, furnished £2,500,000 to an Exchequer which sorely needed it, and was one that might very well be retained in the fiscal system of the country. So I have been driven into the region of surmise, and where all is mysterious on the Treasury Bench a certain amount of surmise below the Gangway is possibly permissible. I have endeavoured to put the most favourable construction on the action of the Government in repealing this tax—a construction which I think is borne out by the speeches of the Prime Minister and by certain indications of a personal character which speak volumes to those who can read between the lines. It appears to me that what has happened is possibly this—that the Cabinet under the spell of a certain dominant will have found themselves confronted with the necessity of placing, sooner or later, before the country a much larger issue than the question of the corn tax, and some conscientious Member of the Government, who is determined that this great question, if it is to be fought out, should be fought out free of prejudice, has laid it down in the Cabinet that they should go to the country on the large issue of preferential tariffs free of the encumbrance of this small and innocuous tax, and that the question should not be prejudged in any way by the imposition or retention of such a tax. If that construction be correct, all I can say is that it is heroic, but it is not practical politics. Still, I am prepared to support the Government in the repeal of the tax because I believe some such consideration as that is moving in their minds, or, at any rate, in the minds of some Members of the Government. 403 In any case, if we are to fight over the battles of fifty years ago, and to be confronted with the phantoms of the 40's and the 50's, it is better that we should get rid of all superfluous baggage, all preconceived notions and ideas in regard to our fiscal system, and go to the task with unbiassed minds and unfettered judgment.
We are told by the Prime Minister that this question of preferential tariffs is one for discussion; by the Colonial Secretary that it is one for discussion and decision; by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that it is one for inquiry and condemnation. It is somewhat difficult amid these discordant voices to know exactly where we stand, and what to expect. It is absolutely futile to say that the Colonial Secretary in his famous speech at Birmingham spoke only for himself. He made no pretence about it. He said distinctly that the Government were going to the country on this issue. How could that be taken merely as an expression of personal and academic opinion? This issue cannot be much longer delayed. We shall have to come to a decision, whatever may be the reluctance of the leaders of the Unionist Party to make the plunge, and it is a decision to which there has been no parallel since Cæsar bade his legions cross the Rubicon. We are bound to face this matter out. Nothing is to be gained by concealing the difficult position in which we stand, and, so far as I am concerned, I shall approach the consideration of this great question of free trade and Imperial unity with an unbiassed mind. I am not "a free trader"; I am "a convinced free trader." I am not a free trader in the sense of looking upon free trade as a party badge, or a flag to be flaunted before the country. I am a free trader because the arguments which support the doctrine of free trade carry conviction to my mind, and because I believe the prosperity of this country has in great measure been built up on the free imports we receive. When we are asked, as we shall be by this larger issue, to modify these ideas, and possibly to incur economic loss for the sake of Imperial gain, I shall hold it to be my duty, as it will be the duty of every citizen of this great Empire, to approach the question in a 404 spirit, not of Party, but of the deepest gravity, as one of the most vital issues that have ever been raised in our history, and, speaking for myself, it will require no ordinary argument, but all the debating force and intellectual keenness of the Colonial Secretary, to carry to my mind convictions adverse to those which I have always held.
§ *MR. TOULMIN
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the stand he is now taking, may, I think, rely on the solid vote of this side of the House. I do not know that we could have had a better summary of the arguments which influenced us last year in opposing the imposition of the tax than the reasons he has given us this afternoon in favour of its repeal. There is one question which appears to me to be of far greater importance than the mere question of the effect the shilling duty has had upon any individual or class in the country, and that is the question of our policy towards the colonies. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford commended the tax as being likely to cement the union between the mother country and the colonies. We on this side welcome the repeal of the tax because it will make more difficult any tinkering with our relationship with the colonies. I do not think our union with the colonies has shown any signs of decay, or any necessity for plastering, pointing, or cementing; it is a union which rests on something very different from mere temporal fiscal advantages, or monetary reasons of any kind. To raise any such question will bring up very delicate points of colonial responsibility and self-government.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member is now entering upon a discussion of a scheme of preferential tariffs.
§ *MR. TOULMIN
I wish merely to state that that is one of the reasons why we on this side approve the repeal of the tax. So long as it remained it was open to be used and increased for such purposes. A year ago I referred to the foot-print outside the cottage door in Lancashire. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer would have had us believe that that foot-print would remain solitary, and that this tax 405 would remain at a shilling. What has occurred since then shows that the instincts of Lancashire were right in objecting to an old doorway which had been built up being again opened, lest the old path should be pursued. It was not the fear of the burden the shilling might impose, but the fear of its growth, and if we had known as much as we now know, since the speech of the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, that fear would have been greater. What has the right hon. Gentleman told us? That he has had to resist claims for colonial preferences with regard not merely to corn, but also to wine, tea, and sugar, so that even more dangerous than we knew was the road opened by this corn tax. Whatever may have been the reasons which influenced the Government, we on this side uphold the system of free trade because it enables us to select the best productions of nature and of man in every country, to bring them together here, and, by the labour and skill of our workpeople, so to manufacture, alter, and combine them that they are sold to advantage, not merely in the home market, but also in foreign and colonial markets. The repeal of the corn tax puts us again into the position of being able to say that that is our policy. The tax was said to enlarge the basis of taxation. It is because it enlarges the basis of taxation that we object to it. Enlarging the basis of taxation too often means increasing the burden on the small wage-earners and the small annuitants and relieving the burden on the classes above. I am rather surprised that some of the facts connected with the tax are not recognised by those who object to its repeal. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford said that bread was sensibly lower in price, and that it had only been raised as an electioneering move. It has been said that the price was put up by the Co-operative Society of Bury the week before the election, and lowered immediately after. Then, too, the Radical bakers of Bury were said to have raised the price before the election, and to have lowered it after. That is a libel on their commercial smartness, and I certainly fail to see how a Liberal loaf at 3½d. and a Tory loaf at 3d. would have been a good electioneering cry. As to the Co-operative Society, they did not alter the 406 price of bread. What they did, as I understand, was to put up the price of flour, as neighbouring societies had already done. It was done at an ordinary business meeting for business reasons, and the price has remained the same ever since. I should like to know where the price of bread is sensibly lower. I know of one place, Oldham, but that is simply due to the ordinary fluctuations, owing to the competition of neighbouring places. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol said that if the price of bread had been affected it would have been affected universally. I do not quite follow that argument. If the tax had been a unit of price, 4s., which about equals ½d. on a four-pound loaf, it would have caused bread to rise a ½d. all over the kingdom, but as it was only 1s. it might be expected to raise the price in about one-fourth of the places in the kingdom, and, singularly enough, in the list of towns given in the Labour Gazette a rise of price is shown in seven places out of twenty-six. The price has risen more than a ½d. in London, from 3½d and 4½d. to 4½d. and 5d. and in the face of that great rise in the chief city of the country the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford says the price of bread is sensibly lower. It has risen also in Bristol, Cardiff, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Dundee, and Belfast, which may be taken as representative towns. But this question will not be of great importance in a few hours as the tax will be repealed. There will remain, however, the great question of what does the repeal of the tax mean in reference to the policy of the Government. The Prime Minister frequently speaks about, our loyalty to "out-worn formulæ." We are entitled to know what are the out-worn formulæ to which he refers. What does he object to? What does he attack in the established policy of the country? Formulæ are summary statements of ascertained facts. What are the facts in regard to our commerce which he attacks? The quotation has already been made from Sir Robert Peel that the penalty is on us if we do not buy in the cheapest market. Does the Prime Minister attack that formula? I think we have the right to ask those 407 who are attacking the formulæ of free trade to define their position. How long are they going to remain on the fence? An inquiry has been spoken of, but how long will the country tolerate uncertainty in questions which touch the foundations of our national prosperity? I do not think there could be a greater impeachment of their patriotism than to suppose that the Government, or any member of it, will leave the country long in doubt as to their true policy. This tax will go, and it is going sooner than I expected. I welcome its disappearance, and I shall certainly rejoice to see the last of it.
§ SIR JOHN GORST (Cambridge University)
I desire to state shortly my reasons for supporting the policy of the Government as embodied in the Bill. In ordinary circumstances a supporter of the Government would content himself with recording his vote with them in the Lobby; but the circumstances of this case are rather peculiar. Nothing could be more satisfactory than the reasons given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for opposing the Amendment; but those reasons, as I understand, are the right hon. Gentleman's own personal convictions, and he was speaking in his own name, and not for the Government he represents. [Cries of "No, no!"] At any rate that is what I understood. But utterances have been made by another Member of the Government which are entirely at variance with the views of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and which, although they are now said to be that right hon. Gentleman's personal opinions, may hereafter become those of the Government—just as much as the Chancellor of the Exchequer's. He was rather surprised to hear that there was going to be an inquiry made by the Government. We are not told by whom the inquiry is to be made, or the nature of the inquiry, and a little further information on this subject from the First Lord of the Treasury would be extremely interesting to the House and very consoling to some of the right hon. Gentleman's supporters. It cannot be the facts of the case that are to be inquired into, because all the facts as to the trade between this country and foreign countries and the colonies are 408 to be found in the statistical abstracts and reports of the Board of Trade, and inquiry can be made by any intelligent Member of the Government in the library in a very short time so far as the facts are concerned. Is it possible that the Government are going to inquire into principles? Is it possible they are going to bring down Professor Marshall or some other learned and discreet professor to inform them as to the principles that ought to be applied to these facts? I should have thought that all this was already well known to the Government, and that after an intelligent study of the facts they could have applied the principles of political economy to those facts and formed an opinion upon this important question. In the circumstances, it becomes excusable in supporters of the Government not to content themselves with a mere vote in the lobby, but to express the grounds on which they give their most hearty and earnest support to the Bill now before the House.
My own grounds are presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I rejoice in the repeal of the corn tax, because, as the late Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, it is not only a tax capable of being misapprehended, but it has become the subject of misapprehension, and we cannot say now that the retention of this tax would be a mere question of a shilling duty on corn. We are face to face with the possibility of having this tax raised in accordance with a policy we cannot discuss in this Bill. We are in imminent danger—and it is avowed by the Colonial Secretary—of having the tax raised into a substantial duty, which will raise the price of the people's food, and in that case there is the question of who bears the tax? Notwithstanding those nice little discussions about who feels the tax—whether it is the railway companies or the steamship owners, the American producer, the baker, or the corn seller, who bears the cost—it will become, as is avowed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, a tax which will raise the cost of the food of the people. Therefore, I suppose it is perfectly in order for a Member who cannot look with equanimity on the cost of the food of the people being raised, to give his reasons, 409 not only for abolishing this tax, but for asking the House to maintain its old principle in refusing to entertain the idea of laying on taxation which will materially increase the cost of the necessaries of life. In former days such a proposition as I have stated would certainly never have been made in the House of Commons, where this principle was looked upon as a political axiom. I remember twenty years ago, when the idea of Imperial federation became prominent, this very question of the possibility of drawing more closely the colonies and the mother country was discussed, but all the discussion came to an end upon the discovery that it involved the necessity of taxing the food of the people, and for that reason it was at once pronounced to be impracticable. But we now live in days when obstacles which were a complete bar to the enterprise of our own predecessors are to be surmounted, and the food of the people is to be taxed in such a manner as to increase its cost. Therefore I ask the House to allow me to state why I believe this to be a most disastrous policy, which neither the Government nor the House of Commons ought for one moment to entertain. My reason is that a tax upon food, however excellent its object, is one which the people of the United Kingdom in their present condition cannot possibly endure. It is obvious there are some classes who can bear it. The rich could bear it, and, I think, what are called the middle classes, the traders and shopkeepers, and the lower middle classes could bear it, and possibly a great many of the working classes, such as skilled workmen and artisans and members of the great trade unions. But the great mass of the labour of this country is unskilled labour, unorganised, and very often ill-paid.
Among the great mass of the people of this country there is such a thing as a living wage. There is a certain number of shillings per week which will suffice for the support of an average workman with an average family in average comfort. The necessaries which a man has to provide with his wages are food, clothes, and shelter. The cost of food and clothes is practically uniform all over the country, but the cost of shelter is very variable, and it cost more for shelter 410 in London, for instance, than in Devonshire. Therefore the minimum living wage varies in various parts of the country. It is greater in the towns and less in the country, but in every place there is a wage which would reasonably support an ordinary average family. How many workmen get that wage? That of course is a question of opinion, and the statistics available are not accurate enough to state it with positive accuracy. Nevertheless a very fair general conjecture can be made, and it may be said that about two-thirds of the working people of the country get a living wage and one-third do not. [OPPOSITION cries of "No, no!"]
§ SIR JOHN GORST
The effect of raising the price of food would be to raise the standard of the living wage all over the country. The result would be that you would plunge a number of people who are now getting a living wage into the class of those who are not, and you would also press the people who are now not getting a living wage into still greater poverty and hunger. Immediately you raise the price of food you will greatly increase the poverty and hardship, and misery among the people of this country. It is said that wages will rise—I have heard it stated, but I have never heard it proved. I think that if the Government will take Professor Marshall into their confidence, he would advise them that the raising of the price of food will not necessarily increase the rate of wages. Even if it were so, wages would not rise immediately. The people will have to fight for increased wages. What will be the condition of the rising generation meanwhile? If the House at the present time would realise the true condition of the children who went to their schools, they would be perfectly appalled at the degeneracy which is coming upon the people. The condition of the people of this country, and especially the condition of the rising generation, is such that, unless something is speedily done to improve it, we must make up our minds that this country will degenerate in physique. These are considerations which led me 411 to say that nothing will persuade me to be a party to such a tax on food as will materially increase its price to the people of this country. I would rather leave Parliament than be a party to any such policy. Some people say in a sneering kind of voice, "This is mere parochialism." I believe it is true Imperialism. I cannot conceive anything more mad and foolish than to attempt to found a great Imperial Power upon a population that is not healthy and strong and well brought up. To my mind the true course for Imperialists now to take is to set to work to mend the condition of the people of this country, and not to make it worse by putting taxes on food. When we have got a generation of children growing up that are healthy, properly fed, and properly taught, we may hope to extend the great moral empire of this country, and we may hope that in the future the people of this country will be as glorious in the world as they have been in the past.
§ MR. BRYCE (Aberdeen, S.)
The House finds itself to-night in a very novel and extraordinary position. Those who sit on my side of the House have the pleasure of supporting the Government in accordance with the arguments which they addressed to the House a year ago. Last year we had to oppose the Government when they were proposing this war tax, and this year we find that like the savage king they are adoring what they burned and burning what they adored. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has repeated those arguments with great force, and with an elaborate array of figures in order to show that this tax would raise the price of bread and would press heavily upon the poor. It is true that the First Lord of the Treasury, in a speech made a few days ago, had indicated that his reasons for repealing the tax were not those which have been taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But I do not feel much anxiety on that account. It is a sort of rule of this House that a Minister must never confess that he has made a mistake, and the First Lord is bound to tell the House that all the reasons which compelled him to put on the tax last year induced him to repeal 412 it this year. I cannot feel that there is here a case of simple, honest conversion on the part of the Government to the principles of free trade. Language has been used and opinions have been expressed which make us ask and make it impossible that we should not ask why is it that the Government have decided to repeal this tax? They speak with very different voices and we want to know, and nearly everybody who has joined in the debate wants to know, why is it that this tax is being repealed? If the reasons given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer were shared by his colleagues there could be no question about the matter, for he says that the consumer does pay, but there is another voice which says that the consumer does not pay. If the producer pays why should the tax be repealed? It is proposed that there should be inquiry. Inquiry might begin at this point, and we would like to hear the Colonial Secretary giving his reasons for believing that it is the producer and not the consumer who pays this tax. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will also tell us whether if the beneficent foreign producer pays the 1s. duty he will also pay a 2s. or a 5s. duty. If the consumer does not pay, the price does not rise, and if the price does not rise, where does the right hon. Member for Sleaford come in with his increased land cultivation and increased home-grown food supplies? We are told by the Colonial Secretary that one of the great advantages of having a tax upon food would be that a greater quantity of food would be produced in this country, and that the difficulty we have in getting foreign food supplied would be to a large extent met. But it is clear that if the price does not rise the motive the right hon. Member for Sleaford refers to would not operate at all. That appears to have struck the First Lord of the Treasury, because when he met the deputation he asked them what their interest was if it was not in a protectionist tax. I think these questions are strictly relevant to the present debate, because if we are to repeal the tax we ought to be sure of the ground on which we repeal it. It is a question seriously and solemnly brought before us in a peculiar way. 413 We are asked to go back on what a large majority of this House did a year ago, and if we are to make that change we ought to be sure of our position. We know the view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we want to know the views of the other members of the Government. Is this done from electioneering motives, or from the motives suggested by the hon. Member opposite? May we have another reversion in the next year or two in the opposite sense? These are questions to which we have had no answer.
I think we are entitled, when reviewing the fiscal policy of the country, to know whether the decision is to be a final and permanent expression of the mind of the House. Now the Chancellor of the Exchequer has repeated the arguments which were used last year on these benches against the tax. I will not repeat them. I am quite content to leave them as they were left by the right hon. Gentleman. But a remark fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bristol which seemed to me to be very important. He said that circumstances have changed since this tax was passed last year. They have changed. A good deal has happened since then of supreme importance to the issue before the House. May I call the attention of the House to some of those things which have happened since the month of June last year. In the first place there was the Colonial Conference. I remember it was indicated last year by my right hon. friend the Member for the Montrose Burghs, by my right hon. friend the Member for the Stirling Burghs, and by myself, that one of the reasons why we thought the corn tax, or any food tax, was a dangerous tax, was because it would immediately hold out the prospect of the colonies asking preferences for themselves. That was discussed at great length, and really one of the strongest arguments we ventured to put before the House then, was that the tax would give the food-growing colonies an opportunity of asking some benefit to themselves. Now that immediately happened. The Colonial Conference was held about a month after the tax was imposed, and, as we all 414 know, at the Conference Canada asked a preference for food supplies, and in somewhat general terms the demand was supported by the other colonies. I will not discuss, after your ruling, whether that was a good thing or not; that would carry me beyond the lines you have laid down But it is important that we should remember that it is the natural result of having a tax on food. So far this country stood on the principle not to tax food at all, and it was the answer that could be given to any demand made by the colonies. We stood on the broad basis that for this country it was a matter of supreme importance to have the food of the workers cheap, and, having regard to that vital principle, that we should not enter on the consideration of preferential tariffs with them. But we have taxed food, and why should we not give them a preference. I think it is most dangerous to raise any expectation of that kind on the part of the colonies, and any Minister who, knowing how delicate is the position in which the colonies stand to us, goes out of his way to tempt the colonies in a matter of this kind, incurs a grave and serious responsibility.
A sufficient reason to us against the tax is that it will lead to proposals of that kind, and if we continue to allow such expectations to be raised we shall be drawn into a system which would land us in fiscal confusion, which would deprive us of fiscal freedom, and which, instead of consolidating, would tend to the disintegration of the British Empire. Another thing has happened since this time last year. Last year it was easy to give protection, but it was hard to stop it. There is no microbe so dangerous as the microbe of a protective tariff. It is like a moth in the thread of a garment. It spreads continually from one to another until you have it covered like a network. This is what has happened in Germany, France, and the United States; and if we impose a tax on corn, how are we to resist the demand to impose a tax on meat? If we are to give protection to the colony which produces corn, why not to the colonies which produce wine, tobacco, timber, or raw material like wool. Vested interests soon grow up which make it exceedingly difficult to recede from any protective tariffs you impose. We have 415 heard even now, in regard to this comparatively small tax which was introduced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol as being non-protective in its character, that the millers have come to the Government and demanded, on the ground of their vested interest, that it should not be taken off. The stronger the vested interests become the more they form combinations with one another until at last the interests of the people are overborne by the combined interests of selfish grades. When this tax was proposed last year the question of raising the price of food was dealt with chiefly as it concerned the producer. The argument of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol was that the food of the people would not become appreciably dearer. Now we have another argument brought forward. It is now admitted by the Colonial Secretary that the price of food will rise and that wages will rise in like proportion.
§ *MR. SPEAKER
Though the right hon. Gentleman is in order in discussing the effect of taxation on food, he is not entitled to go into the general scheme suggested by the Colonial Secretary as to mutual arrangements with the colonies.
§ MR. BRYCE
I thank you, Mr. Speaker. I have not the slightest intention of going into the question of preferential tariffs. I wish to confine myself entirely to the question of taxation on food. If it be true that a tax on food is followed by a rise in wages, one of the strongest arguments against the taxing of food is removed. Those who argue that a tax on food will be followed by a rise in wages are giving powerful support to the Amendment. Therefore I am entitled to argue on the contrary that no evidence has been adduced to show that a rise in the price of food will be accompanied by a rise in wages, and there is no ground for believing that this will be so. That is an argument which I think is strictly relevant to the question before the House. What ground is there for believing that a rise in the price of food will be accompanied by a rise in wages? No argument has been given. I want to put to hon. Members what I believe is the only ground on which it can 416 be maintained that a tax on food will be accompanied by a rise in wages. If you can imagine a country standing alone in the world where the workers work at a starvation wage and where the manufacturers are not exposed to the competition of other countries, I admit that a rise in price of food will be accompanied by a rise in wages. It is perfectly clear that if they spend more in paying for food they will have to get larger wages or they will go to the ground altogether. That is the one kernel of truth which supports the view that a rise in the price of food will be accompanied by a rise in wages. But the case before us is totally different. In this country our people are not working at starvation wages, and the country is exposed to competition. If the manufacturer therefore is obliged to pay higher wages he will, in many branches of trade, be unable to make a profit as against foreign rivals. Therefore I say that, so far as logic and reason go, there is not the slightest ground for believing that in a country like England a rise in the price of food will necessarily be accompanied by a rise in wages. I think the argument is entirely the other way, and it rests with those who advance this startling proposition, which is opposed to the doctrine of the best economists, to prove that proposition. We have some experience in this matter. There was a time in this country when food was heavily taxed. Wages were far lower then than now [An HON. MEMBER "Oh! oh!"] I will be glad if the hon. Gentleman who says "Oh! oh!" will refute the argument. Does the hon. Gentleman deny that wages were lower before 1846? Let us look abroad. We are told to look at Germany. We are told that protection there has had the effect of raising wages. Wages in Germany are much lower than in this country; and as to high wages in the United States, protection has nothing to do with them. They are due to the excess of the demand for labour over the supply; and what is most remarkable in the United States is that food is free and cheap. The prosperity of the United States is therefore a testimony to free trade rather than protection.
417 I do not pretend that free trade is an axiomatic truth. Every proposition in politics is open to free discussion in the light of the changing circumstances of the time. I appeal, not to the venerable memories of Cobden and Bright, but to reason and common sense. I say that the more you interrogate reason and common sense and experience the stronger will your conviction be that the prosperity of this country has been largely due to free trade. It is by cheap raw material and cheap food that the condition of the working class has been improved, that our manufacturing industries have been built up, and that our shipping has become larger than that of the rest of the world. Therefore, believing that the great source of our commercial prosperity is to be found in those principles, and in the experience of the last fifty years, I should hope that we shall have on this occasion, on this vital issue, a very weighty, and, I would venture to say, an almost unanimous deliverance from this House. I have tried to state the new features of the situation which give the debate on the Budget of this year an even greater importance than the debate of last July. But there is one other point that increases that importance. It is the attitude taken up by the Government. I do not want to say much about the attitude of the Government, because I do not want to bring anything of a Party element into the discussion of an issue which is of such enormous importance. I do not want to say anything more as to the position of the Government than was said by nearly every hon. Member opposite, and above all by the hon. Member for Cambridge University, who has stated the case with perfectly crushing force. He has said that the position is impossible. Then the hon. Member for St. Albans asked what is the Cabinet at? I will not speculate further, but where you cannot explain the conduct of a body of men by any principles, you must explain it by persons. I can only suppose that there have arisen differences of opinion which obliged members of the Cabinet to hold directly opposite positions. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in those words which he read out from the Table with so much emphasis, told us not only 418 what was his own mind, but that the Cabinet to which he belongs had no collective mind at all. There seems to have been an arrangement that everyone is to go as he pleases; but there is to be an agreement only as to the desirability of an inquiry. I should like to know when this inquiry is to be begun? How long is it to last? Who is to conduct the inquiry? Is it to be by a Royal Commission, or a Select Committee of this House or what? I should have thought that the inquiry, if conducted at all, ought to have been conducted in the first instance by the Cabinet themselves, and in the next place by the grand inquest of the nation. But, if we cannot have the collective mind of the Cabinet, the next best thing to have is the mind of each individual member of the Cabinet.
The Government, so far as we can perceive, appear to be irreconcilably divided. They are divided not upon small matters, those little differences of opinion in the Cabinet which are settled by compromise, but divided on a question which goes to the very foundation and roots of our whole fiscal system, I go farther and say that it goes to the reconstitution even of the Empire itself. I think that that is not only an unprecedented thing, but a very dangerous position. It is a position which cannot last. We must go forward. Out of the impenetrable gloom which covers the Treasury Bench there rises a spectre of a change which threatens the existence of the country, which disquiets every trader and manufacturer, which has already disquieted not only the colonies but foreign countries, and which will leave us no peace until some settlement of it is reached. Upon the question of the corn tax there is, so far as we know at present, an irreconcilable difference of opinion between members of the Government, and I venture to believe that when our proceedings of to-day are read in the newspapers to-morrow, there will be a sense of amazement over the whole of the country. Whatever we may hear to-day, and whatever difficulties in which we may be placed by our own rules and forms of procedure in discussing this enormous question, I think that the country will insist on 419 knowing what the mind of the Government is, and whether the Government has any mind at all.
§ THE FINANCIAL SECRETARY TO THE TREASURY (Mr. ELLIOT,) Durham
The right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has been engaged in struggling with a spectre conjured up by his imagination. I will not enter into that struggle, but confine myself to dealing with the four corners of the Bill before the House which, by the consent of every part of the House, contains the collective mind of the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman has been in search. This is a Bill of extreme simplicity; it is a Bill of extreme straight-forwardness. Hon. Members may be amused with that description of the Bill, but it is a character that might better be applied to it than to some of the past Budgets laid before Parliament. Look at the position in which the country finds itself. We have only just emerged from a great war in which we have been pouring out money like water, piling up taxes, and borrowing money in order to achieve that which, I think, was the object of every man in this country, victory for our arms, and success for our policy. That was the position we were in a year ago; what is our position now? By that expenditure we have achieved a victorious peace, we are now no longer pouring out money like water, we are not now in want of money, not engaged in borrowing money; we are not now spending the Sinking Fund for paying off our debt; we are no longer searching for every source of revenue; we are engaged in relieving the burden of the Income Tax and in making reductions in the indirect taxation which falls so heavily on the people. We have heard to-night some interesting and able speeches in support of the Government and the Second Reading of the Government Bill from this side of the House. I am particularly alluding to the speeches of my right hon. friend the Member for the University of Cambridge and the hon. Member for the Toxteth Division of Liverpool. These speeches were made strongly in favour of the Bill. But I heard also some hon. Members on my 420 own side of the House talking in a desponding and deprecating manner of the difficulty in which they are placed, because they find that they are supporting this year a different Bill from that which they supported last year. I do not know that I am more thick-skinned than other people, but I have not found myself in any difficulty in that respect. The line I took last year is the line on which I take my stand to-day. I described myself as a free trader, and I supported the Bill of last year as a free trader, but a free trader in want of revenue. We are paying off our debt, we have ceased to borrow, and I may say that a man who will not take a Budget in accordance with the facts of the day is no statesman at all, and does not deserve to be weighed in comparison with those who in the past arranged the financial system of the country. As a private Member, and as a free trader, I supported the Bill of last year, because it would draw revenue from all classes of the community, and the fact that it did so was a recommendation to me. To-day the position is changed, and we are taking off taxation so as to relieve the pressure on the poorer classes of the people. In supporting the corn tax last year I expressly disassociated myself from the attitude of my right hon. friends the Members for Sleaford and the Isle of Thanet, who are avowed protectionists.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
May I be permitted to state that when I supported the imposition of the tax last year I did so on the ground, which I repeated over and over again, of revenue, and not as a protectionist.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I am well aware that my right hon. friends were last year lying very low; but a change has now taken place, and though I was able then almost to disregard the voices of the protectionists, I confess that I think we are living to-day in a somewhat different atmosphere, and that it behoves all those who agree with my right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the right hon. Member for Cambridge University, and the hon. Member for Toxteth Division of Liverpool, not to be ashamed of our free trade colours. We 421 support this Budget, not only as representing the convictions of the Government, but because they are our own personal convictions as to the course we ought to pursue in regard to this year's finance. There is every reason for considering that the line taken by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer a year ago was the right line, and to expect that this almost imperceptible duty would fall into the position of the old registration duty. But the position is not quite the same now. We have to look at the state of the case with which we have to deal. Gentlemen who were very quiet a year ago when they sat below the Gangway are far less quiet now. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford has stated that a shilling duty does not make much difference, but that you might increase it to four, or five shillings.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
I beg pardon. I said nothing of the kind. The statement is absolutely incorrect in every particular. I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent me. What I did say was that I believed that if the tax remained on, in the course of time the small addition which the Colonial Secretary proposed the other night of 2s. might have been added without making the slightest difference.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I heard the right hon. Gentleman with my own ears; and I am within the recollection of the House. I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that the matter had been looked into, and if even 4s. or 5s. a quarter had been asked—
§ MR. ELLIOT
I am delighted to hear it. I was, however, present at the reception of that deputation which the right hon. Gentleman voiced so admirably, and I can only say that the impression borne in upon my mind was that if I had myself risen on that occasion and proposed a duty of 4s., or 5s., or 10s., I would have been received with acclamation. I do not think that I would have been repudiated by my right hon. friend.
§ MR. CHAPLIN
I am sorry to appear again, but the hon. Gentleman is making such loose and reckless statements that I am obliged, reluctantly, to intervene 422 once more and contradict what he said. If the hon. Gentleman had made any such proposition I would have repudiated it absolutely. What I said this afternoon was that if a tax of 4s. was imposed it would raise the price of wheat; and that is exactly the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman has put into my mouth.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I am delighted to learn that my right hon. friend pledged himself to a shilling duty, and never meant to increase it in any way. If the right hon. Gentleman and his friends are not looking to an increase of this duty, why in the world are they so interested in this tax? Why do they advocate and agitate the public in favour of taxation which is to bring them no benefit? My impression is that the reason of the great popularity attaching to the corn tax is the hope that it may lead to something else. Many hon. Gentlemen believe that if we have a protective duty on corn the transition will be easy to other articles, from corn to butter, from butter to cheese, from cheese to bacon, and from bacon to mutton and beef, and then to articles of luxury. I ask hon. Members seriously to consider what this country is to gain or to lose by giving up its position as a country with cheap imports upon food. There are very different reasons for which import duties may be put on. There is the revenue reason, which is a good reason in many cases. The right hon. Gentleman taunted us just now with having lately become converts to free trade. I repudiate that.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I think I have shown how the position this year is a different position to what it was last year. But, Sir, I was saying that although the levying of import duties for the sake of revenue appears to be a perfectly wise step, to levy them for the sake of keeping out commodities was a very different thing.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I rejoice in the free trade position which this country has held for so many years past. It is 423 a great and grand ideal that under the British Flag, wherever the Home Government has control, wherever in the United Kingdom, India, Gibraltar, Malta, or Hong-Kong, go where you will, the British subject of whatever colour he may be, can buy his commodities at the market price. The market is under the Union Jack, and wherever it is under the control of the Home Government it is a free market. That is a thing to be proud of, and I say it would be a mighty change if for that position we substitute another into which artificial considerations might enter and lose the free markets and privileges we now enjoy.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I do not understand my hon. friend's interruption. He must know that I referred to India, Hong-Kong, Malta, and the Crown-Colonies. It is fighting against facts to maintain that it is not so. I am now stating facts, and it would be a considerable loss to this country if we gave up that ideal and substituted something else for the free markets that exist in the United Kingdom, India, and our Crown Colonies. The great bulk of the corn that comes into this country, and under the present system is taxed to the extent of one shilling per quarter, comes from our fellow-subjects in Canada and other British colonies. I want to point out what the state of things really is. So far as the British colonies are concerned it was free, but now toll bars have been set up for revenue purposes. About £2,500,000 was raised last year under this one shilling per quarter duty, and of that no less than £400,000 odd, in fact nearly £500,000, came from our British colonies. I do not know that I am concerned in knowing very elaborately who pays the tax. In the long run a very large proportion 424 falls on the consumer. I should not like to say the whole of it does, but there is £500,000 paid into the British Exchequer. That money does not "drop like the gentle dew from heaven." It comes out of the unwilling pockets of British citizens, and that is due to the toll bars which have been set up on the great ocean routes which would otherwise be free to productions for the British markets. It would be serious indeed if we made this system a matter of permanent policy, and in order to favour this land or that nationality, we made a great change and toll bars were to be erected on the great ocean routes of commerce.
§ MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! The hon. Member is now dealing with a subject outside the question before the House.
§ MR. ELLIOT
I admit, Sir, I was going too far, but my point is that no less than nearly £500,000 raised under the Act we are pressing to repeal is contributed between the British colonies and our own kingdom. I yield to no one in my desire to promote, not only the prosperity and wealth of the kingdom, which means the wealth of the people, but the prosperity and unity of the Empire. This is, however, rather beyond my text. I should like to say one or two words about the position taken up by my right hon. friend behind me. There was some talk of an inquiry, but the idea was never entertained of a wild, roving inquiry, such as has been mentioned in the course of the discussion. I imagine that what is contemplated is such an inquiry as is now taking place, and the more inquiry of that kind the better. I should like to associate myself humbly with the prophecy of my right hon. friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My right hon. friend stood there, and, looking forward into the future, said he felt that the more public inquiry there was the more the public would find that one of the main causes of the prosperity and power of this country lay in the fact that food and raw materials must remain cheap. That is the present view of the Government; 425 and the more that the people inquire into this matter, the more they will find that the system advocated by Sir Robert Peel cannot lightly be dismissed as of no account. I repeat that is the policy of the Government; it is the policy strongly recommended to the public and to the House, and I believe that the more it is considered by the country, the more the country will feel that the Government have placed an honest, straightforward, simple, and sound financial measure before the House of Commons, and I cannot doubt that it will be passed by an enormous majority.
§ MR. ROBSON (South Shields)
I do not hope to controvert any of the arguments to which the House has just listened with pleasure, and, I hope, with profit. The speech we have just heard was, I observe, delivered from the Front Bench. It was delivered from opposite this box, which is supposed to indicate a position of authority, and to indicate that the speaker has behind him the opinion and authority of the Government that he represents. We are entitled to know if that is the case with the speech to which we have just listened. I am not going to travel so far as the hon. Gentleman did into subjects of discussion that may possibly be beyond the scope of the matter before the House. I am going to confine my remarks entirely to the question of the shilling duty on corn, and I do not propose to go beyond that limit. But within that limit we are entitled to know what is the mind of the Government with regard to the tax they are proposing to take off. Are they proposing to take it off in order that, a short time after, they may reimpose it? We are entitled to have that in clear terms from the head of the Government. If it is to be taken off in order that it may be subsequently reimposed, I say that we are wasting our time, and that the Government is trifling with the country. If, on the other hand, it is the intention of the Government, as represented by the Prime Minister's speech, to alter the fiscal policy of the country, we ought to have a statement by the head of the Government. 426 A few weeks ago the head of the Government made a speech entirely in consonance with that to which we have just listened. The Prime Minister said then that this tax should not be made a part of the permanent fiscal system of the country. It is unnecessary to enter into the reasons. He said it could not be made part of the permanent system, and no one believed that it could. But at the very time that the right hon. Gentleman was delivering this speech another speech was being delivered elsewhere which indicated that this tax, or something even larger, might and ought to be made part of the permanent fiscal system of the country. That speech coming from the Colonial Secretary was one which the Prime Minister, if he had had any regard for consistency or discipline, would have repudiated, or at all events would at once have said whether he agreed or disagreed with it. But the right hon. Gentleman has taken a different attitude. He has succumbed to the Colonial Secretary. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Colonial Secretary are now in the House. It would be presumption for me to say what is the duty of these right hon. Gentlemen to the House, or whether their absence during such an important debate as this is quite respectful to the House. But as a Member of the House I am entitled to say that these right hon. Gentlemen ought to be present and to state their views on the questions at issue before we proceed to a division.
We want to know with regard to this shilling per quarter corn tax whether it is going to be reimposed as part of a larger and wider policy. If so, let the Prime Minister tell us at once, because we are entitled to know. But apparently the Government have not made up their minds. The Colonial Secretary a few nights ago in this House told us he was prepared to go into the cottages of the working classes and explain how much his scheme would add to the cost of living. He was prepared to assume that not merely a part, but the whole burden fell on the consumer, and he was prepared to say how much their wages must be raised in order to meet that increased cost. The Colonial Secretary appears to have now taken a somewhat different view. He told us that 427 this tax laid nothing whatever on the back of the consumer, and that it added nothing to the price. We are entitled to ask him and the Prime Minister whether they maintain the Colonial Secretary's view of three weeks ago, and what they now think is the effect of the shilling per quarter tax on corn. At all events, I maintain that they ought to be here and state their views. I hope they are not going to allow the division to take place without telling us whether they hold the views of three weeks ago, of a fortnight, or a week ago, or whether they have now discovered some new views. I think the House had better vote on the view that the tax will be reimposed. We are entitled to assume that there is a party in the Government strong enough to commit the Government to which they belong to the reimposition of this tax. But whether we vote for or against the tax there is still the larger question to be decided, and we want the Government to help us. I am not curious to know the collective mind of the Cabinet. I want to know the mind of the Prime Minister. The difficulties we feel on this subject have not been cleared up by the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. Gentleman spoke to-night in a dual capacity. First he spoke as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then he spoke as himself. I listened to him with keen attention, and tried very hard to find out when the Chancellor of the Exchequer ceased to speak and when the right hon. Gentleman began as a private Member. I found it exceedingly difficult to draw the dividing line. The right hon. Gentleman condemned preferential tariffs. He condemned those tariffs, and spoke freely and frankly in favour of free trade. Was that the mind of the Government? Was the Chancellor of the Exchequer speaking for the Government, or was he, as an estimable private Member, giving expression to an academic opinion of his own? Which was it? We do not at this moment know what is the policy of the Government, and I submit that we ought not to be kept in ignorance of that policy any longer.
§ *MR. RENWICK (Newcastle-on-Tyne)
The right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Cambridge University, I would like 428 to point out, voted for the corn tax as a member of the Government a year ago, and he certainly did not then make such a speech as that to which we have just listened. If it be the fact, as he stated, that so many of the wage-earning classes are on the verge of starvation, surely that in itself is a reason for reconsidering our fiscal policy and of endeavouring to find some means of raising their status. I understand the right hon. Gentleman bases his statement with regard to so many of the wage-earners of this country being on the verge of starvation on extracts from books written by Mr. Rowntree and Mr. Booth; and I certainly think it is our duty, in view of those statements to examine our fiscal policy. I should like to hear the opinions of the representative working men, who I see opposite, on this question. We have had one important admission from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Aberdeen, to the effect that, in the consideration of proposals for the modification of our fiscal policy, it is no longer a heresy to call in question the policy promoted by Cobden, Bright, and other prominent free traders. If any of us had ventured to raise this question not very long ago we certainly should not have been met with that admission.
I now wish to say a few words with regard to the Amendment before the House. We have been told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister that the corn tax was imposed on grounds of expediency, and not in opposition to the principles of free trade. I remember when it was proposed last year I made a speech in regard to it, and I ventured to say that the working men of this country would not trouble themselves with wire-drawn arguments as to whether it was protective or non-protective, but that they would simply consider the question of its expediency. I myself supported the tax on the ground of expediency, and I must say I have heard no sufficient reason addressed to us at the present time why it should be removed. But I would remind the House of one other reason why it ought not to be repealed. At the present time there is in existence a Royal Commission which has been appointed to inquire into our national food supplies in time of 429 war, and it may be that it may report in favour of placing a tax on imported corn, in order to encourage the growth of wheat in this country; in that case it would become necessary for us to reimpose the duty. Seeing that not more than twelve months have elapsed since it was decided to impose this duty, I certainly cannot understand why this proposal should have been made to remove it, especially in view of the recently expressed policy and opinions of the Colonial Minister, of which I cannot believe the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues were entirely in ignorance. Personally, I have no hesitation in saying that I should prefer a reduction of the duty on tea to the abolition of the corn duty, and I will briefly state my reasons why. We have heard from the Financial Secretary that India is the principal free market from which we draw our supply of tea. What do we do in return for this great boon? We impose a tax of 6d. per lb. upon the tea. We have been told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the increase of the tea duty by 2d. only raised the price of tea to the consumer ½d. per lb., and if that be so, it means that the Indian planters are getting 1½d. per lb. less for their tea than they did before the extra 2d. was added to the duty. That fact alone, I think, is a reason why we should gracefully remit the 2d. now that we have an opportunity of doing so. It has been estimated that every person in this country pays 3s. per annum in the form of duty on tea, while the duty on imported wheat and flour works out at about 7d. per head per annum. Therefore, if we reduce the tea duty by 2d. per lb. we shall confer a greater general benefit than by removing the corn duty, and that is the reason why I, for one, would prefer a reduction of the duty on tea. Whereas, formerly, we imported the bulk of our tea from China, the position has been reversed, and we now get it mainly from our own dependencies, of India and Ceylon. I believe that it is upon the tea-planters themselves that the burden falls.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that as a result of the imposition of the shilling duty on corn the price of American wheat has been increased from 30s. 3d. to 33s. per quarter. But I dispute this because I find that Cali- 430 fornian wheat is now quoted at 31s. 3d. or 31s. 6d. and Argentine 28s. 6d., while Manitoba wheat, which I presume is also considered American, is only 29s. 6d., and other North American wheats only 29s. I therefore cannot see on what the right hon. Gentleman bases his statement that American wheat has gone up to 33s. on account of the duty. As a matter of fact the prices now are practically the same as they were in June, 1900, 1901, 1902, but there has been a large variation in the cost of freightage. In 1900 the freightage from New York and other North American ports worked out at 3s. 9d. per quarter; a year later it was 2s. 9d.; in 1902 it was 2s. 3d., and in 1903 it was 1s. 9d. I may be told that that variation is attributable to the corn duty. But I should like to call attention to the freightages from the Argentine Republic. In 1900 they worked out at 5s. 4d., in 1901 they had fallen to 3s. 9d., and in 1902, after the shilling duty had been imposed, they were 2s. 6d. But it is a remarkable fact that at the present moment they work out at 4s. 6d per quarter. What does that prove? It proves that the foreigner who has wheat to send here does not grow it for the purpose of sending it to this country. His first object is to supply his home market, and he only sends us the surplus and takes whatever he can get for it. If that be not so why should he now be willing to pay 4s. 6d. for freightage when only a year ago he paid but 2s. 6d. The fact is he has to pay whatever the shipowner can enforce, and to take whatever price he can get for his produce. When there is a large surplus of wheat in America, and when the prices ruling for that wheat are low, freights are often high, therefore I believe for one that the foreigner has had to pay the 1s. duty and not the home consumer. Bearing all these facts in mind, I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that I should prefer a reduction of the tea duty by 2d. to the repeal of the corn duty. We have been told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we are going to repeal the duty because it laid us open to so much misrepresentation. I say we ought to take a higher view than that, and we ought to do that which is best for the country, and for the good of the Empire. 431 We were also told that if the big loaf and the little loaf were accurately pictured, it would require a microscope to see the difference between them. I have taken part in one or two by-elections since the tax was put on. I remember particularly the Devonport election; and I saw carried through the streets there a great loaf labelled the Radical loaf, and an extremely small loaf labelled the Tory loaf. So small was the Tory loaf that it almost required a microscope to see it. Yet we won that election in spite of misrepresentation. We know very well that whatever measure is brought in by the Government, it will be misrepresented by the other side; and I am surprised that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should have adduced such a reason for the repeal of the tax as that it was liable to misrepresentation. I believe that during the next six months we will hear considerably more of this question, and that before the controversy is over many who are now in favour of the repeal of the tax will come round to the view that it would be much better to reduce the duty on tea.
§ MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)
It is perfectly true that I interrupted the hon. Gentleman with the remark that his argument as to freight proved absolutely nothing. I repeat the statement, because if his argument is worth anything at all, shipowners, knowing that there was a surplus stock on the other side, would offer to bring it to this side for 2s. 6d. when there was no particular demand; but like every other commercial man, they tried to make the best profit they could, and asked 4s. 6d., and got it. The Colonial Secretary asks if people think that when the rich are taxed the poor escape. "No," says the right hon. Gentleman, "the bottom man will always pay." It seems to me that there must be something wrong with my education. I cannot believe that this is such an infinitesimal matter. Hon. Members do not seem to realise that there are retailers who will seize every opportunity to raise the price. If you are able to say that the poor will get the article at its real price, well and good. I remember when 6d. per gallon was put on spirits, a penny per quartern was put on the spirits 432 retailed in the public-houses. Does the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford realise that the bakers will say, "Oh, the Government have put a shilling duty on corn; therefore, we must raise the price of the loaf by a halfpenny." It will give everyone an opportunity of making a little more out of the poor. In a word, we furnish traders with an excuse; and I want to deprive them of that excuse. Is the House agreed that this is such a small matter, so unimportant, that it really means nothing in particular. I only wish some hon. Members could change places with some of the English housewives, and see what a difference a penny or twopence a week means to them. It sometimes means the difference of having or going without. I am told that all you have to do is to raise the price of commodities and tell the working man that the more he pays for his food the more wages he will get.
If the Government went to the country on a question like that, they would get an answer which would surprise them. Personally, I congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on having the courage to take off this tax; but we do not know where we are, or what is going to happen. We have had an exhibition in the House to-day the like of which I am told has no parallel in history. Two great speeches have been made on the fiscal policy of this country. When I am told that this wonderful scheme will be so profitable that we are to have old-age pensions, I ask where the House is drifting to. Was not the income of last year sufficient to meet the needs of the Government? Now we are going to take the duty off corn and to relieve the Income Taxpayers of about £10,000,000. My answer is that I do not know of any better use that can be made of the surplus we now have than by giving old-age pensions straight away. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer finds himself with a surplus, instead of getting up and suggesting that now at last there is an opportunity of fulfilling the pledges which were given to the country, without any increase in the burden of taxation, and of meeting 433 a large portion of the demand for old-age pensions, he starts another hare which we are to chase. That has happened over and over again. Whenever the country is alive to the need of some social or domestic reform a new cry is started. A kite is sent up and then the Government watch what is going to happen. I think the hon. Gentleman the Member for Northampton was right when he described this new scheme as a rotten red herring. We have all got our particular metaphors. It seems to me that any sort of thing is good enough for the Government as long as it takes the mind of the people away from the object they have in view. I make this appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer: Take this corn tax off, but keep the Income Tax on. In that way he will be able to meet a very large proportion of the demand of the working-classes of this country for old-age pensions. I regret that the Rules of the House will not permit me to move the Amendment I proposed to move; but I hope the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford will be defeated, and that we shall have a statement from the Treasury Bench as to whether we are to have another inquiry. I do not believe that any hon. Member wants an inquiry except for the purpose of postponing the matter. We are convinced that the right thing is free trade, and the people should not be put off with an inquiry.
§ MAJOR SEELY (Isle of Wight)
I have listened to the whole of this debate, and nearly every hon. Member who has spoken has asked the same question. I do not wonder at it. As I understand the position, we are now all agreed that this duty on corn was not imposed as a protective tax. At the same time, we are agreed that there are persons in this House who think that it would be advisable that protective taxes, of which this is one, should be maintained, and possibly increased; and we have also had brought to our notice in the course of this debate that one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent member of this Government is in favour, not only of retaining this tax, but increasing it. Every hon. Member, therefore, in these circum- 434 stances asks what is going to be done; and as a very humble Member of this House I say it is trifling with the House as a deliberative assembly to ask us to decide as to the taking off of this tax when the one member of the Cabinet who alone can answer the question is not present to tell the House whether they are going to be asked to impose it in a larger form to-morrow. Although I am a free trader and support the views put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I am entirely in sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sleaford in thinking that this is but scant courtesy to the House, and, therefore, as a protest I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Major Seely.)
§ *MR. RITCHIE
The Government had hoped that this debate might have been closed to-night; but, of course, if there, is a disposition that it should be carried on to-morrow the Government will not, having regard to the great importance of the question, stand in the way of the adjournment of the debate now. I hope it may be possible to bring it to a conclusion at the afternoon sitting tomorrow, but I do not wish to ask for any pledge on that subject.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Debate to be resumed to-morrow.