HC Deb 04 April 1905 vol 144 cc394-424
SIR JOSEPH LEESE (Lancashire, Accrington)

said his first word in regard to the Resolution he now had the honour to move would be one of regret that in this year of grace 1905, there should be need for a Resolution of this character, but the political needs of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, and not the political needs of the nation, were the real cause. They were the danger signal to cheap food in this country. The right hon. Gentleman had had the onus cast upon him of endevouring to show that his political needs and those of the nation were the same. In this he had failed, for no man with any sense of proportion could give equal value and importance to the respective needs. In making his fiscal proposals the Member for West Birmingham had set before himself a difficult task. He had to face great difficulties of fact and experience. To propose an increase in the price of food at the present time in the United Kingdom, after sixty years of comparative cheapness and plenty, was to revive the sad and dismal memories of what were called the "hungry forties." To propose such an increase at the present time was to set some, who still lived and recollected those evil days, others who lived in the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, and others again who read history and thought intelligently, asking what could be the urgent need of this reactionary and retrogressive proposal. It was difficult to conceive any great national emergency, however acute, which could justify such a policy. This was the most important branch of the fiscal question. Neither retaliation, negotiation, conference, or preference, were it possible to separate any of those items from the tangled proposals of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, would go so straight at the vital interest of the people as the proposal to tax their food. This was a working man's and working woman's question. A question for those whose labour was their only capital, who had to live from hand to mouth on weekly wages, and who were driven by the commonest prudence to reckon how every penny was to be spent. It was deadly blow to those whose food was the raw material of their labour.

His proposition alleged that taxation of food was especially burden some on the poor. Who were the poor whom he sought to protect from the policy of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham? According to the excellent book written by Mr Booth in 1889, nearly one-third of the population of London were living on a weekly income of 21s.—the average size of the family kept upon that sum being the man, his wife, and two children while Mr. Rowntree told them that there were in York 7,000 persons, out of a total population of 46,000, who lived on less than 21s. a week for a man, his wife, and three children. In England and Wales, according to the recently published Board of Trade Report, the average wage of the agricultural labourer was only 17s. 5d., out of which the amount spent for food alone was 13s. 6d., what room was there here for dearer food and where was the justification for the sacrifice such people were to face if the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham were accepted? He agreed with what Lord Goschen had said, that this was a "gamble" in the people's food and a risk which the House of Commons would not permit the people to take. But they were, nevertheless, face to face with this proposal, and his Resolution, which he hoped by midnight would be a registered record of this House, was a Resolution that under the hand and guidance of the Prime Minister ought to have been submitted to the House of Commons within forty-eight hours of the first declaration of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham that he meant to tax the food of the people.

The right hon. Member for West Birmingham had varied the text of his discourse from time to time. Great inducements had at first been held out to the workers to accept his policy in the promises he made to them of old-age pensions and increased wages. These have faded away under discussion. The inducement now was a ''united Empire," but though that might be a grand ideal, its grandeur would not be enhanced or increased if it came to be contemplated by a hungry and underfed people, who, under such circumstances, might regard Imperial unity as a very doubtful asset. It appeared to him that if the right hon. Gentleman desired to rouse in the people of this country a spirit of patriotism he was going the wrong way about it, the working man was beginning to ask, "Is it quite certain that if my food is taxed this great Empire will be consolidated." If a united Empire is to be brought about by this home suffering of our very poor, it is quite certain that it will soon be regarded as a luxury only of the rich by those upon whose sacrifice it is built up. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham made a great many proposals, but that which might be called the considered proposal was the one he made at Glasgow, when he proposed to put a 2s. duty on foreign corn, a corresponding duty on flour, a small tax of 5 per cent. on foreign meat and dairy produce, and to give a substantial preference to the Colonies in respect of wines and perhaps Colonial fruits. This was to cost the labourer 4d. a week more, and the artisan 5d. a week more, but he proposed to give back what he took from them in that way by a remission of duties on tea, sugar, coffee, and cocoa. Even if they accepted—which they did not—the figures of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, the labourer and the artisan would be no better off than before this so called "scientific readjustment" of taxation—which he preferred to call a jerry-mandering operation—began. The right hon. Gentleman proposed to remit taxation on tea, sugar, cocoa, and coffee, but those taxes were not the right hon. Gentleman's to play with. They were already mortgaged to the people—they belonged to the people, they were the property of the people long before the right hon. Gentleman's scheme was propounded. They were war taxes imposed for the purposes of the late war by two successive Chancellors of the Exchequer, and when the war was over, the people had as much right to have those taxes returned to them as the income-tax payer had to have that tax reduced. The key to the right hon. Gentleman's proposal was the power to remit these taxes, and so compensate the workers for the taxes he proposed to put upon their corn, meat, and dairy produce. If the people of this country had a right to have that tax returned, it was not by the condescension of the right hon. Gentleman, but by their own right. If the power to remit this taxation was taken away, then the scheme of the right hon. Member for West Birmingham collapsed like a house of cards. The people were not only entitled to have their cheap tea, sugar, cocoa, and coffee, but cheap corn, meat butter and cheese as well. That was their right, and it was the business of this House to protect it.

The Prime Minister when speaking upon the Motion of the hon. Member for Argyleshire offered an excuse for having moved the previous Question on the Motion of the hon. Member for Oldham. He said— I set the Government Whips in motion: I thought, and still think, this House ought not to set the example of passing a Resolution which would prevent the Colonial Conference from being free. But if the Motion of the previous Question were justified, then it was more so now by the refusal of the House to-day to accept the taxation of food which the Prime Minister and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham agreed lay at the root of colonial preference. Where was the Prime Minister now to defend the freedom of this Colonial Conference, for this Resolution thus deliberately made against that freedom, so far as the taxation of food was conerned? The whole of the Unionist Party seemed to have taken as a new motto that "one pair of heels is worth two pairs of hands." If anything was to be done for colonial preference in conference, it must be based upon concessions by both parties to the agreement. The mother country was to be called upon to negotiate with the Colonies in an attempt to arrive at an agreement in regard to Colonial preference, but she was to go into that conference with the condition precedent that she was to concede something which she could neither tolerate nor bear, and that was the taxation of food. On the other hand, the Colonies were asked to go into the negotiations, well knowing that they had also a condition precedent which could not be conceded. They had their young and growing industries, and they must keep out the competition of foreign countries by import duties unless they wished these industries to be swept out of existence. Therefore, they had two parties to negotiate under conditions which were impossible. Then what was the good of this conference? Both parties were called upon to enter into it with their hands tied. What was the good of entering into a fruitless conference which could bring only irritation, jealousy and disappointment. Now where were the independent members of the Unionist Party to-day? This is a question of the taxation of the food of the people. Surely there ought to be sufficient independence among the supporters of the Government to induce them to vote against the taxation of the food of the people. The people in this country regarded this question as of vital interest, and they would certainly say that "he who is not with us is against us" in this vote.

Where was the policy of the Member for West Birmingham to lead to? The moment they allowed protective duties to begin, there was no telling where they would end. The working man of this country had found the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham out. The working man thought that the right hon. Gentleman had been trying to fill his mouth with empty spoons—he was tired of the right hon. Gentleman trying to tickle his throat with a feather, and making a fool of his stomach—he saw that the right hon. Gentleman's windmill had dwindled down to a nutcracker, that his speeches were those of a man who was desperate, his actions—the actions of one who was seeking to avoid the evil spirit of protection which he himself had raised. The opponents of free trade talked with disparagement of the antiquated shibboleths of free trade, which brought in their train peace, happiness, and contentment. But they forgot that there was a policy even older than free trade, and that was protection. Protection too had its antiquated shibboleths and in their train came misery, discontent, and starvation. These, alas, our people had known but too well. Might heaven preserve them from the revival and resurrection of the accursed thing—protection. He begged to move.

MR. SEELY (Lincoln)

said he wished that some one more competent than himself had been selected to second the Resolution of which the overwhelming majority of the House and of the country was in favour at the present time. He believed that after the next general election such a Resolution would be supported by a still larger majority in the House than it would be that night, and that on any future occasion when the subject came to be discussed they would not see any empty benches either on one side or the other of the House. He regretted—they all regretted—that these "missionaries of Empire," whose fervent eloquence had resounded in their ears and filled the newspapers during the last few years, had not deigned to include this House within the range of their efforts. He did not know their reason—whether it was that they thought freetraders were past redemption, or whether the somewhat coldly critical atmosphere of the Chamber was not altogether propitious to the per-fervid eloquence suitable to a mission—eloquence apt to be a little lurid as to language and a little careless as to facts.

As the hon. and learned Member who had so ably moved the Resolution had stated, they might have anticipated that a Resolution relating to the Colonial Conference would have been moved either in the session of 1903 as a preliminary to the commencement of the mission in the country, or last session at the conclusion of it, and that they would have had a straight-forward issue presented in a Resolution advocating preferential duties for the Colonies and involving the taxation of food. But nothing of the kind had occurred. It was true enough that whenever the Gentlemen who advocated this policy were able to cajole or compel the Government to represent that their interests were involved in the matter, then they favoured the House with their presence; but when the ægis of the Government was withdrawn from them they had, with one or two brilliant exceptions, taken but little part in these debates. Well, though they might regret it, they were not misled by it. Neither was the country misled by it, nor would our brethren in the Colonies be misled by it. Did anyone doubt, if those who had advocated this policy had had the smallest chance of carrying a Resolution in the House in its favour, or even of making such a fair show of strength as would have given them a reasonable prospect of success in the future, that they would have come forward and advocated it openly? They knew well, and every man in this country and in the Colonies knew, that the reason why these Gentlemen were absent that night was not the reason set forth in the Amendment which had been placed on the Paper that afternoon, although the hon. Member in whose name it was was not present to move it. The reason given in the Amendment for their absence was that they disapproved of abstract Resolutions. That was not the real reason. The real reason was not that they disapproved of the passing of abstract Resolutions, but the fact that they were unable to prevent them being passed, as the Resolution which he was seconding would be passed that night.

The Resolution embodied a self-evident proposition on the face of it. Who was there in this country who would really wish to put a tax on corn, meat, and daily produce? Corn was the food of all the people, more particularly of the poorest. Meat was the food on which our workmen relied for giving them that strength which had made them the best workmen in the civilised world. And as regarded dairy produce, no one who took an interest in the social condition of the people would wish to do anything to increase the cost or diminish the consumption of milk. One great fault in our social arrangements was the fact that over large parts of the country the consumption of milk by children was not sufficiently large. Social economists had always known it, but it had been proved in an inquiry, the results of which were published a short time ago. A larger quantity of milk was taken by children in the northern than in the southern parts of England, and anything which would tend to increase the price of this most valuable food would be an injury to the future of the country altogether. It was desirable, therefore, that they should place on record what their opinions were with respect to those proposals, which had been placed before the country, and might be brought forward at the future Colonial Conference. Such a conference was held some years ago, but as to what happened at it there was no accurate information. He was not clear whether any demands had been made upon this country by those present at the conference, but, to borrow a phrase from electrical science, he gathered that there was some sort of magnetic field which surrounded the Colonial Premiers and which induced some currents in the mind of the late Colonial Secretary which caused that right hon. Gentleman to contemplate at the time, and to advocate afterwards, a policy of taxation of food and preferential duties to the Colonies which years ago he would have regarded with objection, he might almost say with dismay.

The argument had been used that this country would gain so largely by giving preferential duties to the Colonies that it would be worth our while to suffer some loss in order to obtain preferences from the Colonies in return. It was difficult to ascertain with real accuracy what the chances were of any gain being obtained from colonial preferences. There were two kinds of Colonies—one in which we had equal advantages with all our rivals, and the other in which we had some advantages which our rivals had not. No colonial preference could alter the disadvantage of geographical position, as in the case of Canada; but take the case of Australia and the Cape, where we had a fair and equal chance with all our trade rivals and neighbours. What were the real facts? The largest of the Australian Colonies was New South Wales; it was a free-trade Colony, and therefore there were no disturbing elements of taxation of trade there. Our share of its trade was 65 per cent. of the whole, and that was a little less than the average for the whole of Australia. Eliminating all articles such as petroleum, rice, tea, etc., which this country could not itself produce, and leaving in all the numerous articles in the manufacture of which other countries had advantages over this, although we produced them also, then our share of the trade with New South Wales was 74 per cent., or three-fourths of the total trade. In Natal we had, in 1901, 79 per cent. on the total trade; in Cape Colony we had 84 per cent. Now, take the great staple trades of this country—cotton, woollen goods, iron. In New South Wales we had 95 per cent. of the cotton trade in 1901; 89 per cent. of the trade in clothes; 77 per cent. of the trade in iron goods; and 78 per cent. in 1902; and of woollen goods, 94 per cent. in 1901, and 91 per cent. in 1902. In Cape Colony we had 97 per cent. in 1901 of the trade in woollen goods; 93 per cent. of the trade in linen goods; 94 per cent. of the trade in cotton goods; and 82 per cent. in the trade in iron and steel. In Natal our trade was 96 per cent. of the total trade in woollen goods; 94 per cent, in linen goods; 84 per cent. in cotton goods; and 80 per cent. in iron and steel goods. Well, what was the proportion of the trade of our competitors? Germany had 3 per cent. of the woollen trade, and 2 per cent. of the cotton trade in New South Wales. In Victoria, Germany had 5 per cent. of the woollen trade and 4 per cent. of the cotton trade. What prospect was there of gain on these staple trades by giving preferential duties to the Colonies in comparison with the injury which would be caused by taxes on our food?

In Canada the position was different, and he had a suspicion that it was in Canada that a great portion of the basis for this theory of preferences was to be found. He was sorry to say that there was rather a tendency on the part of the "missionaries" to be a little careless as to their facts in regard to Canada. There had not been that accuracy in regard to facts that he would have liked to have seen in a matter of this importance. Our trade with Canada since the preference had increased very largely, and numbers of people had been going round the country saying that the increase was due to the preference. Well, Canada had increased enormously in the last five years in wealth and population, and so her trade had increased, and, of course, preference or no preference, our trade with her would increase also; but the whole question of the value of the preference lay in the relative amount of the trade. Now, before the preference was given our trade with Canada was 27 per cent. of the whole Canadian trade; but since preference it had varied between 23 and 25 per cent., and on the preference we had no increase in our relative share of her trade. He did not mean to say that there was not an advantage in Canada giving us a preference; but the gain had not been of that large character which would justify anyone in saying that any real substantial advantage had resulted from it. He was sorry that the Secretary of the Board of Trade was not present, as he did not like to speak of him in his absence; but that right hon. Gentleman, speaking at Warrington a week or two ago, cited the fact that our trade percentage with Canada had not increased, and the reason of that was a large increase in the American trade. The American trade, however, said the right hon. Gentleman, should not be taken into account, because the trade between Canada and America was mainly in raw materials, with which we did not compete. Well, he thought it worth while to look and see; and he found that the value of the imports into Canada from the United Kingdom of manufactured articles was 41,000,000 dollars, and the value of the imports of manufactured articles from the United States was 52,000,000 dollars. He did not think that the explanation as to the American imports being entirely raw materials, was one which altered much the percentage of our trade with Canada; but it showed that there was no real advantage to be gained from preference. He did not wish to be held to minimise the kindly intentions of Canada in giving us preference, but he did say that it had not resulted in any such increase in our trade as would justify our running serious risks in order to tax our food.

It was clear that while we could not hope to gain very much by preference to the Colonies, much injury might be done to our general trade. When preference was first put before the country in 1903 they were told that the compensation to working men for taxing their food was that there would be a large increase in trade with the Colonies, and that that would be followed by an increase in wages; but in October last it was put forth to the country that the working men were no longer to rely on an increase of wages but on the taking off of the taxes on tea, coffee, and sugar as a compensation for a tax being put on their food. The fallacy which underlay that proposal had already been exposed by his hon. and learned friend; but there was an Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for Liverpool, although the hon. Gentleman had not had the courage to come and support it. In that Amendment the hon. Gentleman said— In the opinion of this House, the burden of local and other taxation presses unduly upon the food-producing and manufacturing industries of this country, and should, as far as practicable, be transferred to foreign importations. That was rather a come-down from the great policy that was to unite the mother country with the Colonies. It now appeared that the only thing that was to unite the mother country and the Colonies was to reduce the expense of the parish pump. Still, though this policy afforded no prospect of advantaging the trade of the country, it had to be met and fought. He gave every credit to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham that he did not bring it forward and advocate it from any selfish motive, but with the object of uniting more closely the Colonies and the mother country. But there was nothing new about that policy. The right hon. Gentleman often said "Why is it that we treat our Colonies differently from the way that other nations treat their colonies, with whom they have preferential arrangements?" The reason was clear; we had had experience in the past of arrangements of that kind, and we had profited by the experience that we had gained. He would like to read to the House an extract from the King's Speech 140 years ago, which, he thought, showed that there were men before the right hon. Gentleman who held his opinion as to the desirability of uniting the Colonies with us by means of duties. In 1766 in the King's Speech there appeared the following passage— The many regulations you have made for extending and promoting the trade and manufactures of Great Britain and for settling the mutual intercourse of My kingdom and plantations in such a manner as to provide for the improvement of Our Colonies on the plan of due subordination to the commercial interests of the mother country, are the strongest proofs of your comprehensive regard to the welfare of all My dominions—an object truly worthy of the British Parliament. It shall be My endeavour that such care be taken as may tend to secure the improvements and advantages which may be expected from such wise and salutory provisions. The Parliament which heard that King's Speech of 1766 was equally anxious to do justice to the Colonies as was the present Parliament. They were prorogued after that Speech and met in the following November, and proceeded to pass a tea duty on the United States of America. They passed it without debate, but it was a preferential tea duty, and although they passed it without debate it was not without consideration. When it was objected to shortly afterwards they complained bitterly of the objection, because they said that although it was nominally a duty of 3d. in the £, to the consumers in America, really, owing to the arrangement with India, it was a bonus of 9d. in the £. And that was true, because those in America who objected to the duty threw the tea into the Boston Harbour, not because it was dear, but because it was cheap, and if landed it would bribe the people in the Colonies to consent to duties being placed upon them by the Parliament in London. Those who lost us the Empire of the world 140 years ago were actuated by similar principles and similar ideas of commercial policy, and of the influence and result of taxation, as those who were at the back of these principles now. Those men had undertaken a long war for the colony, and were anxious to place a share of the burden on the Colonies across the seas. There were men taking part in agitation now who wished to put forward as a portion of it the necessity for the Colonies assisting in reducing the burdens of this country and of placing some of these burdens on the Colonies, and of bribing by preferential duties some sections and classes of people in the Colonies to assist them in that policy. Our fathers and grandfathers had profited by experience, and by establishing entire fiscal independence as between the Colonies and ourselves they had created this great Empire. He asked the House to pass this Resolution because it was true in itself, and because it was a declaration to the Colonies of our opinion on the matter. It was only by a clear and plain statement on the part of all concerned as to their wishes, desires, and hopes that in this or any other matter the Colonial Conference in 1906, or any other conference, could possibly succeed in strengthening and increasing those bonds of unity between the Colonies and the mother country, which it was the object of that House and the Empire to increase, strengthen, and improve.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House disapproves on principle of the taxation of corn, meat, and dairy produce, as being especially burdensome to the poor and injurious to the welfare of the nation; and believes that no proportionate remission from existing duties on tea, sugar, coffee, and cocoa would afford compensation for the imposition of such taxes; and declares its opinion that any Colonial Conference that is entered upon, except on the understanding that this country will not agree to the taxation of corn, meat, and dairy produce, will result in failure.—(Sir Joseph Leese.)

MR. CROOKS (Woolwich) rose to support the Resolution and to ask a few Questions. It had been very difficult indeed to meet face to face the people who had been promoting this great fiscal policy throughout the country. Their own speeches had been misinterpreted, and they were told that they did not understand this question. He quite admitted that it needed a cultivated intellect to understand all the proposals which had been put forward in its favour, and as he laid no claim to cultivated intellect he desired to ask a few plain Questions, thinking that was the best place in which to ask them. They were told that they were wanting in Imperial instinct and in the desire to draw closer together the kinship which existed between the Colonies and the mother country; also that they should be prepared to make some sacrifices. It occurred to him that when sons and daughters went abroad they did so exceedingly well for themselves that they did not expect post office orders from the poor old folks at home. The kinship of Empire could not be cemented on a pounds, shillings, and pence basis. He did not feel assured of the honesty of this fiscal agitation. One could understand an honest opponent who said "My friend, you are wrong," but during the last two years they had been waiting to have other questions answered, and instead of paying attention to home matters that ought to be studied, their minds had been occupied with this fiscal bogey. In the early stages of the agitation they were told that if the proposals were to be made the law of the land the workmen would benefit by receiving increased wages. At his end of the town when the workmen were told that they were going to have an addition of 2s. 6d. a week to their wages they were so sceptical that they asked, "Do you think Mr. Chamberlain would lend us a bit on account?" There were plenty of South African millionaires in this country who might help in the unemployed question, but whose efforts were directed to raising the price of the food of the people.

Another proposal was to tax manufactured articles coming into this country and thus make no less a sum than £9,000,000 which might be devoted to old-age pensions. They were also told that by taxation those goods would be kept out of the country. His intellect failed to grasp how they would make £9,000,000 out of goods which were to be kept out of the country, and he was of opinion that the myth of old-age pensions had gone with the rest of the myths which had been put before their notice. The hon Member for Sheffield (Sir Howard Vincent) who was the first and last of the tariff reformers—had called the attention of the Prime Minister to the fact that £100,000,000 worth of manufactured goods were brought into this country, and, deploring the amount of unemployment, had suggested that if those £100,000,000 worth of goods were made at home there would be plenty of work for the unemployed. We, however, exported £200,000,000 worth of manufactured goods, and it had to be considered that if we hit out at the £100,000,000 of imports we were liable to be hit through the £200,000,000 of exports. No doubt if we kept out the £100,000,000 worth of manufactured goods we should have something to do, but we should also have plenty of time in which to do it, because we should lose £200,000,000 whilst making £100,000,000.

Then they were told that the foreigners would be made to pay for the home markets. On one occasion Mr. Chamberlain had said that every halfpenny placed on the necessaries of life in the shape of market charges made it the more difficult for the humble people of the nation to live. But they were now told that if the foreigner had to pay the charges there was no need for them to trouble in the matter. What would happen when the foreigner made everything and sent it to this country for nothing? They would join the ranks of those who toiled not, neither did they spin. They would have nothing to complain about, but would live in the lap of luxury for ever.

But why should they not be practical? Was the House always to be used in order to make the rich richer, and to insist that the poor should always want to have their needs redressed. If they were to give a preference to the Colonies by the taxation of meat, it would follow that colonial meat would be dearer, and the poorest of the poor would have to do with a smaller quantity, and thus make a sacrifice for the benefit of the Colonies. Another question he had to ask was with reference to Colonial wheat. He understood that whilst our Colonies sent 19,000,000 cwts. of wheat to us every year, the United States sent 73,000,000 cwts., and yet, in the interests of the Colonies who only sent 19,000,000 cwts., we were to tax 73,000,000 cwts. and to pay more for our bread. Then he would ask those responsible for the fiscal proposals how did they propose to discriminate between the United States and Canadian wheat. We used the United States ports for shipment in the winter, and the Canadian ports in the summer, the result being that a very large carrying trade was done between those ports in the summer time. How would it then be possible to stop the United States growers from smuggling part of their 73,000,000 cwts. into the Canadian ports? Then, again, how would the Canadian authorities like us to interfere with their trade? They were told not to trouble about little pettifogging details which they did not understand, but he could assert that so far as wealth was concerned we were now better off than ever we were before. In 1849 there were 202,265 able-bodied outdoor paupers in England or 11.7 per 1,000 of the population; in 1872 there were 128,000 or 5.6 per 1,000, and in 1904, when they were told that they were absolutely ruined, there were only 62,509, or 1.9 per 1,000. There was no justification for this agitation. He hoped the Resolution would be carried unanimously, and that the House would say to the nation that no matter what might happen in the future if they were going to build up an Imperial race it should not be done by taxing their food.

MR. CLAUDE LOWTHER (Cumberland, Eskdale)

said that as the hon. Member for Woolwich announced that he wished to ask a few Questions of the advocates of tariff reform, he in turn would interrogate the hon. Member on one or two points. Was not the hon. Member a trade unionist?


I am exactly in the same position as a lawyer protecting his own interests.


said that surely protection was the essence of trade unionism. ["Oh, oh!"] Would the hon. Member object to the introduction of foreign miners, for example, into the country? [Several HON. MEMBERS: Chinese?] He was talking of England at the present time. Would the hon. Member object to the introduction of cheap foreign workmen—yes or no? The hon. Member could not answer.


I do not think this is the time or place, but I can answer.


hoped the hon. Member, then, would answer at some other time, and he would wait his reply with interest. Hon. Members opposite opposed preferential tariffs from a sincere determination to combat any policy which they believed would increase the cost of living to the working classes. He gave them credit for that intention; might he ask in return to be believed when he said that if he thought a preferential policy would have that effect he would not champion it? He was as much opposed as anyone to increasing the price of living of the working classes, but one fact had convinced him that if our present system of fiscal isolation was maintained the price of the people's food must rise in the future, and that very considerably. At present we relied, to a great extent for cheap wheat upon the excess production of the United States. But the United States was gradually filling up; the virgin soil was decreasing. There was a rapidly increasing population in that country to feed, and it followed as a natural corollary that the price of wheat from the United States must rise in the near future. Therefore, it was the bounden duty of all who had the welfare of the people at heart to stimulate by every means the production of wheat elsewhere, and not only in the Colonies, as the only sure protection against expensive food at home. The House should bear in mind the fierce competition of the last two decades for the markets of the world. One by one the neutral markets had been absorbed by protectionist countries, and at this very moment, when the Colonies offered us a splendid outlet for industrial and commercial enterprise, and when the countries of the world were all trending towards consolidation, should we alone of all nations stand back from the supreme movement of the age because the noble Lord the Member for Greenwich had levelled his telescope at the Imperial sun and discovered a speck or two upon its face? Although the meridian of Greenwich regulated our time, his noble friend would find it difficult to put back and keep back the hands of the clock.

It would be almost suicidal to refuse the offer of the Colonies ["What offer?"] The offer of a free conference, for one thing. Already they were our best customers—["No."]— and when the infant communities of to-day became the giant communities of the future it would be difficult to measure the prosperity of that country—he hoped it might be Great Britain—which was able to keep pace with their growing demands. Many of the Opposision leaders now believed that a conference would be helpful, but possibly that was because they had discovered that they dare not oppose it in the country although it might lead to the ultimate success of the principles which would give the coup de grace to their policies and prophecies. It was unfair to attempt to cripple the conference before it was formed. Such a conference, constituted as it would be of the leaders of thought from the corners of the world, ought to be free to discuss any and every matter of interest between the mother country and the Colonies, but the Opposition apparently desired that the question of paramount importance, that of freer trade, should be barred. Apart from the absurdity of the position, it was nothing short of insolence to turn to the Colonies, when commercialism was the touchstone of the world's politics, and say, "You have come perhaps 20,000 miles. Make yourselves quite at home. Talk about the weather, discuss the constitution of the next Radical Cabinet, compare the manners of Lord Chesterfield and of the junior Member for Oldham; you may talk about anything you like except the one policy you have come to discuss, viz., the question of freer trade between us and the Colonies." He protested against the terms of this Resolution.

MAJOR SEELY (Isle of Wight)

Will you vote against it?


Certainly. He protested against the terms of the Resolution because he thought it prejudiced the issue and pre-judged the question.

SIR HENRY FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

The hon. Member who has just spoken did not hear the powerful speech made by the hon. Member for Lincoln in seconding the Resolution, or I think he would have struck out of his notes a great portion of the speech which he has just delivered. The Resolution, so ably moved by the hon. Member for Accrington, sums up tersely and comprehensively what is the main principle underlying the whole of this fiscal controversy, and also underlying the attitude which we should take up as a nation with respect to the Colonial Conference. I am not going over the ground which has already been so ably covered with reference to the taxation of food, the injury that that taxation would do to the people of this country, or the relationships between ourselves and our Colonies; but I would say that the injustice and unfairness towards our Colonies of which the hon. Member for Cumberland has spoken would have been shown by this country if we had allowed their representatives to come here in ignorance of the real determination of the people of Great Britain. If it be the case—and I have heard no dispute even from the other side of the House as to what the result of the next election will be—that the people of this country are determined that they will not, for reasons which appear satisfactory to themselves, submit to the imposition of a tax on wheat, flour, meat, and dairy produce, for any purpose whatever, I think it is straightforward and honest to tell the Colonies the truth. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham did not shrink from telling the last Colonial Conference that. He told them in the plainest English that the people of this country would not stand the proposals then made with reference to imposing taxation on the food of the people. But to-night we find ourselves in this difficulty, that there is one body alone in this country which there is an attempt to prevent from giving its decision as to what the feeling of the country really is and that body is the House of Commons. Whether the decision of the House of Commons is right or wrong, those who believe that they have the majority in the House dare not face the test of the division lobby on the question. That indicates, at all events, that the time has come when the tribunal which will have to settle the question should be consulted, and that if the House of Commons is incapable of expressing an opinion on the subject the time has arrived when the constituencies should be asked, and asked before the conference is held, what their opinion is and their intentions are.

I do not shrink from the importance and gravity of the great issues which the Resolution raises; but I venture to say to the House that there is an even greater issue at stake at the present moment with reference to the Motion now before the House and the procedure which has been adopted by the Government both before and up to this night. This issue has not been raised by the Colonial Governments or by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham; it has been raised by the Government alone and by the Prime Minister of this country. What we are face to face with is an unprecedented attack upon the rights, the privileges, the prerogatives, and the freedom of the House of Commons. Who has endowed the present Government, or any Government in this country, with the right to prescribe limits to the discussions of the House of Commons? Who has given them the authority to say that if they absent themselves from the House, if they decline to take any part in the matter on which the House is proceeding, that discussion is of no value, and ceases to be a discussion in, and a decision of, the House of Commons? I am under the impression that with Mr. Speaker in the Chair, with the mace on the Table, and with a quorum of Members, here is the House of Commons. The constitution of the House is complete when those conditions are complied with. The presence or the absence of the Prime Minister, or of any one of his followers, or of all his followers put together, in no way affects the powers and privileges of a duly constituted House of Commons, and the test of the opinions of the House is to be found in one place, and one place alone, the division lobby. Of course there have been snap divisions—nobody denies it—taken at certain moments and under certain conditions which did not, perhaps, accurately represent the opinion and the judgment of the House; but there is a constitutional way of rescinding or reversing those decisions.

The Prime Minister told us, on the last occasion on which he conde- scended to take any part in these discussions, of the precedent set, he said, by Mr. Gladstone, and he instanced a division which took place when Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister on a question affecting the government of India. He said that that division was set aside by Mr. Gladstone, that no notice was taken of it, and that it was practically reversed on the fiat of the Minister in charge of the Department. Well, there is just a smattering of accuracy in the allegation; but it does not tell the whole truth. An important Resolution was introduced on a Friday evening; the Government resisted the proposal, which reversed to a great extent the principle of our past government of India, but were defeated in a House of 160 Members by a majority of eight votes. The charge was that Mr. Gladstone did not take any notice of that. That is not the case. It was a decision of the House of Commons, even under those abnormal circumstances, and the Government sent it out to India, submitted it to the Government of India and to trustworthy authorities, and months elapsed before the question was finally brought before the Cabinet, and when it was brought before them the Cabinet decided that it was impossible in the interests of the State to allow the Resolution to be carried out. The supporters of the Resolution were given an opportunity of reaffirming that Resolution, but they did not avail themselves of it. Will anybody say that that Resolution was disregarded or treated with contempt? And now the House is told that the justification for the action of the Government is that this is an academic question.

There is a singular phrase in the notice given of an Amendment by an hon. Member who has not had the courage to come and move it; it says— The occupation of the time of the House by the discussion of abstract Resolutions of a prophetic nature and upon hypothetical bases, the majority of the House testifying their disapproval by being absent. Well, the only way to testify disapproval is to vote against the Resolution, but that is the one way the Government dare not face. They say that it is an academic question. The right hon. Member for West Birmingham, when he raised the question, and those who follow him did not so consider it; the right hon. Gentleman, I think conscientiously, considered it a vital question, upon the proper solution of which depended the unity of the Empire, the existence of our trade, and our national prosperity. On the other side those who differed from him with equal conscientiousness and determination, believed that the policy suggested would be fatal to the prosperity of the Empire, the existence of its trade, and the maintenance of the proud position it had hitherto occupied. Is that an academic question for a great nation like this. The Government has been broken up by it, the Cabinet has been reconstructed; its ablest and most experienced statesmen went out on the question; and from the hour when the matter was raised to the present time there has not been a single by-election in the country in which this academic question has not been the principal—I might almost say the sole—issue upon which electors have voted. This is perhaps the keenest political fight which has taken place in this country since the Reform Bill; and the decisions of the House on a question of such magnitude are not a game, are not a joke, are not a performance depending entirely on the skill of the players. We have been told to "think Imperially." I suggest that we should think Imperially of the House of Commons, the oldest and noblest of representative Assemblies, at once the foundation and the bulwark of constitutional Government and free institutions.

What is the position of the House at this moment? Where is the Leader of the House? Next to you, Sir, the Leader is the guardian of the rights and privileges of the House of Commons; he has as clear and distinct a duty to the whole House as to his own Party. The great men who have held that position in the past have been able to maintain their position as Leader of the House as well as leader of a Party without the two duties clashing. But the present Leader has abdicated, gone away, and on a great constitutional question such as this, for the last two years, and especially during the present session, we have been met by what I may call the tactics of the nursery. The Prime Minister has been answered by a distinct Resolution of the House condemning his attitude on one of the principal questions of the day. Conceive such a Motion, condemning the Government, condemning the Prime Minister, and dealing with one of the greatest questions of the day, dealing with a great Imperial policy being brought forward in the days of Peel, of Russell, of Beaconsfield, of Gladstone. Would they have run away? No; they never treated the House with contempt. They were, each one in his turn, defeated during the course of their Premiership, and they took their defeat like men, like Englishmen. The present Government dare not face this House. And why? For the very reason that they dare not face the country. They are perfectly well aware what the decision of the country would be and they are not sure what the decision of the House would be. The evasions, the tactics of the last two years have been for the purpose of preventing the House giving or getting a plain answer to a plain question, and at this moment the House and the country are as ignorant of the policy of the Prime Minister in reference to fiscal question as they are of the policy of the Government in regard to the Army. Those are two great puzzles with which we are very much perplexed. I believe that outside the House of Commons and outside the Metropolis the people of this country feel very strongly not only upon this question of fiscal reform, but also upon the mode in which the House of Commons is being treated. It is said that there is a feeling in the country that the House of Commons is not maintaining its influence. That may be so, but that is what has always been said in one generation as contrasted with the generation that lived before it. But I am perfectly certain that the people of this country are proud of the House of Commons, and will neither forget nor forgive any treason to Parliamentary Government.


said he was not dissatisfied with the effect that these debates in the House of Commons were having on the country on the question of tariff reform. He thought these debates were having a most powerful effect upon the country. He did not believe that there was any corner of the country in which it was not perfectly well understood that if, tariff reform was not defended upon the floor of the House, it was because of the incapacity of tariff reformers for discussion and because their weakness would be revealed if they went into the division lobby. He was certain that when it became more thoroughly understood that tariff reform could not be defended in Parliament, the country generally would listen without conviction to the elaborate speeches and the numerous leaflets that were issued by the Tariff Reform League, and they would return to the old position, when tariff reform would be an academic question—if, indeed, there was any academy so illiterate as to defend it. It was hard that free-traders should be blamed for what was called abstract discussion. They did not begin it and in fact they had been dragged into the discussion. And yet tariff reformers were not prepared to maintain their case within those walls, because there they could not speak without being answered.

He wished to deal with what appeared to him to be of real and material importance in the discussion on the question of colonial preference. He had always felt that colonial preference was the nobler part of the propaganda of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham. A good many people shared with him a feeling of approval when they first read the original speech—which in his opinion was the most attractive speech the right hon. Gentleman ever made—on this subject on the 15th of May, 1903. He regretted that it had not been possible to discuss that question, apart from the general protectionist controversy, for a longer period, because it had been put forward with real sincerity and presented some interesting features. He thought the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham had very ungraciously stolen from the Manchester school one of the least sound of their beliefs. They believed with great fervour in the unifying effect of trade. He thought a study of history would go to show that trade ranked very low down among the unifying influences which created bodies of opinion and great nationalities. The history of modern German nationality might be said to begin in the struggle against Napoleon. There was a great uprising of national feeling, which displayed itself in a great national struggle. Then there came a desire to exhibit it in a Customs union, and so to show that there was a bond of union in existence. The Zollverein was not the cause of German unity; it was one of the expressions of it. The same thing might be said of Hungary. When the dual Monarchy was organised there was a Customs union made as an expression of the common unity of the two kingdoms; and now Hungary, insisting on its own national spirit, was anxious to break that Customs union, not in order to make a nationality, because that was too visibly in existence already, but in order to express the nationality that was already in existence. So that in every case they saw that even a Zollverein did not bind a country together, but merely expressed that which already existed. It was a symptom and not a cause.

Here in the present case they had not to deal with anything so complete as free trade within the Empire. If there were a proposal really before them to create free trade within the Empire it would certainly be a proposal which would deserve very respectful consideration. But a very different proposal was before them. It was a proposal to have reciprocal preferences. Reciprocal preferences had this in common with all protective proposals, that they were capricious and partial, that they selected certain classes for benefit and certain other classes for injury. They were a sort of national favouritism by which tips were doled out in certain directions and were withheld in others. But that was not the worst of the case. The worst of the present proposals was that preference was put forward on a protective basis as part of a general protectionist argument, and the absurdity in which that landed them was not, he thought, sufficiently appreciated. They were to say to Canada, "You are to give us better terms for our manufacturing imports. In exchange for that we will give you an advantage on your corn exports." And, at the very time they were saying this, they were to explain to all the world that German and foreign imports were an injury to them, pressed down the wages of the working men, drove people out of employment, and were, indeed, a great mischief to the people of the country. It was as though the mother of a family, presiding at the board, said to her children, "This dish is dangerous; it is even poisonous, I propose to give you, therefore, a double dose of it in the hope that the consequent dyspepsia and other ailments that it may cause will arouse in you a sincere feeling of filial regard."

It was to be observed that in these negotiations with Canada we were proposing to gain from her more advantageous terms for our manufactures in a manner which would reverse the policy which Canada had pursued. Her idea, no doubt pursued, as they who were free-traders thought, in an unsound manner, was that she was no longer to be a country with a single industry, the great agricultural industry, but, on the contrary, a country with a great many industries. What we were asking her was to give an immense advantage, from our point of view, to her agricultural industry, and at the same time to expose to a special degree of competition her manufacturing industries. Therefore, the proposal was a reversal of Canadian policy for their own industrial good to a greater extent than was sometimes appreciated. It was obvious that if she reduced her duties there would be an increased opportunity for English competition; but it was not always reflected that, if we were to succeed in diverting the corn trade which now went on with foreign countries, and concentrated it on Canada, we should also divert the corresponding export trade from this country with which we paid for the corn. He could not help suspecting that that aspect might have been overlooked by Canadian manufacturers. He should doubt whether they were always better able to understand and follow out the laws of international exchange than very distinguished persons were in this country. Supposing this were so, we should be exposed to this danger: English manufactures would compete in the Canadian market even to a greater extent than had been anticipated, and then Canadian opinion would begin to assert itself, as it had already begun, to some extent, against that competition. The country would remain protectionist, but it would be intensified in its protectionist convictions by having made a convert of the mother country. Was it not certain, then, that the mother country, appearing to a protectionist country in the light of a competitor, would become not dearer, but less dear, not so much an object of loyalty as of jealousy, and that there would be a very real tendency to break the understanding already arrived at and to substitute, not closer union, but all the bitterness that came from having attempted to draw nearer and failed, and ending in mutual repulsion? He believed, therefore, that we should not gain Imperial unity in that direction. We should not gain Imperial unity by dressing up the Colonies in the character of Scarcity and dressing up the mother country in the character of Competition. We should not make them so dear to one another as they were in their natural shapes and without this masquerade. He hoped, therefore, we should not adopt a preferential policy.

At the same time he was very anxious that they who were free-traders, and who would have to settle this controversy, should not forget, in their desire to maintain free trade, that Imperial unity, the desire to draw closer to the Colonies, which was no doubt largely at the bottom of the Member for Birmingham's first development of this policy, was in itself a good thing and one which ought to command their sympathy and co-operation. He had never felt, apart from the fiscal question, that the prospect of Imperial unity was other than a cheerful one. The Empire had already engaged in great enterprises, like the South African War, in co-operation with the Colonies. Why should we not follow the lines of that development by increasing the opportunities of consultation on foreign affairs by co-operating in the government of the dependencies belonging to the whole of the Empire? Why should we not realise better than the Member for Birmingham was able to do that idea which he most lucidly and admirably laid down, namely, the idea of making the Colonies feel that the Empire was not only ours but theirs? That, after all, was the desire and the object, very well stated, but foolishly pursued, which they all set before them. He hoped that the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who must necessarily play a great part in the future, would not allow to slide out of their minds the obligation that lay on patriots of all sorts of political belief to maintain the honour of the Empire, to draw it, if possible, into a closer union. Let them not allow the Member for Birmingham, with whatever good intentions on his part, to become the patentee of Imperialism. It ought to be the common heritage of the whole country. And if, as he believed was the case, the colonists drew the inference from these debates that the House had drawn and that tariff reform had failed, let them at the same time draw the inference that they had many and powerful friends among the free-traders who had triumphed, and that, whether by free trade or protection, the interests of every colony in the British Empire were not less dear to us than were the interests of the counties in our own kingdom.


said it was a great pleasure to find himself in agreement with the noble Lord the Member for Greenwich upon this question, because he knew that a few days hence they would be fighting each other tooth and nail upon another subject. He had no particular wish to speak on this subject at any length, because he had not heard any arguments which required contravening, and it was difficult to make a speech when they had no arguments to meet. He had never looked upon this movement as a serious one. When the late Colonial Secretary returned from South Africa and discovered that the Government had lost its popularity partly on account of the Education Act, and largely on account of the disastrous results of the war, he was anxious to change the subject, and he produced these fiscal proposals in order to give the country something else to talk about. He ventured to think that this new movement would share the same fate as other proposals which had arisen from the same source. The hon. Member for Cumberland had said that he would never have supported this new movement if he thought it would increase the price of the food of the working man. Where did the British farmer come in under these new fiscal proposals? The farmers in the eastern counties had declared that they did not want a tax upon corn, and sixty years ago they asked to be delivered from that tax. He could not help thinking that farmers were right in their contention that no good would come to them from protection unless they were also protected from competition from the Colonies. He could not help drawing attention to the farce which was being played night after night in this House by the empty benches opposite. The dignity of the House was gradually passing away, and the privileges of its Members were steadily disappearing, and so were the privileges of the people who sent them to represent them in the House of Commons. They saw the old-fashioned independent influential Member who cared nothing for office or title or entrance to society gradually passing away. He did not believe that there would be a general election before the autumn of 1907, and he should not be surprised if, when the last year of their present term of office came round, the Government brought in a Bill to discontinue elections altogether in order to remain in office.

MR. HUNT (Shropshire, Ludlow)

said the hon. Member who had seconded this Motion forgot to say that for the five years which preceded preference our exports to Canada went down, and from the moment they granted a preference to this country our exports to Canada went up. He was sorry that the Resolution had been moved, because if it were carried it would do away with all chance, so far as the Liberal Party were concerned, of this country ever entering into a preferential treaty of commerce with her Colonies. Mr. Cobden made a commercial treaty with France, and why should they not be allowed to make a similar treaty with the Colonies? It could not be denied that foreign nations did all they could to injure our trade. Their Colonies had helped them in war, and now they wanted them to help in commerce. The chairman of a big company in his constituency had pointed out to him the enormous advantage which his company had derived from Canadian preference, and he said that had it not been for this preference the work his company had done for Canada would have gone to America. If they refused to join with their Colonies in commercial treates, of course the result would be that their Colonies would join with other countries, and this country would be shut out from colonial markets just as she was now shut out from the markets of foreign countries. As far as the food of the people was concerned the working classes would not be any worse off than they were now, and if he thought for one moment that they would have to pay more for their food under the new fiscal proposals he would have nothing to do with them. They had the authority of Mr. Charles Booth, who was recognised as a great authority upon the London poor, who wrote to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham stating that, in his opinion, as far as he could see, the food of the people would not cost them any more under the scheme of the late Colonial Secretary than at the present time. There had been a great deal of fuss about the big loaf and the little loaf, but he would like to ask if hon. Members opposite had ever reckoned up how much a tax of 2s. a quarter upon foreign wheat would put upon the price of bread? If the whole of this tax was paid by the bakers it would only amount to two-thirds of a farthing upon a four pound loaf. The present system was driving capital out of this country, with the inevitable result that there was not near so much employment for the people. If they had more capital invested in industries in this country they would have more employment for their own people, and then they would have a state of things under which three employers would be running after one man instead of one man running after three employers. Hon. Members opposite tried to stop the Agricultural Rating Act from passing. The real fact of the matter was that hon. Members opposite were dreadfully afraid that the landlords would get the benefit of it. Their policy seemed to be purely negative. What he and his friends wanted was to get the people back to the land. That could not be done in any way except that which he had indicated. Give the landlords a fair percentage on the outlay for new buildings and they would put up cottages instead of allowing that work to be done by the county council or the parish council.

Resolved, "That this House disapproves on principle of the taxation of corn, meat, and dairy produce as being especially burdensome to the poor and injurious to the welfare of the nation; and believes that no proportionate remission from existing duties on tea, sugar, coffee, and cocoa would afford compensation for the imposition of such taxes; and declares its opinion that any Colonial Conference that is entered upon, except on the understanding that this country will not agree to the taxation of corn, meat, and dairy produce, will result in failure."—(Sir Joseph Leese.)