HC Deb 07 May 1919 vol 115 cc1010-5

4. "That in addition to the duties of Customs now payable on spirits imported into Great Britain or Ireland there shall, on and after the first day of May, nineteen hundred and nineteen, be charged the following duties, that is to say:—

And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution shall have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act, 1913."

Resolution read a second time.


I beg to move, to leave out the words, On and after the first day of September, 1919, in respect of spirits not shown to be the produce of a British Possession. The Amendment has for its purpose to eliminate from this Resolution all elements of Preference, so that the same duty will be charged on incoming spirits, whether from parts of the Empire or from foreign countries. It is not necessary that I should cover again the ground that has been covered in the discussions on the other Resolutions, but the points that we made then are, perhaps, more emphatically obvious in connection with this Resolution. The case, as I understand it from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is that, although it is not the 1d. or 2d. which really binds the Colonies to the Mother Country, it is the feeling that they are all in the one commercial enterprise, but this is a duty which gives an enormous advantage to a part of the Empire, mainly, I think, the West Indies, and therefore it will increase the feeling of irritation of such Dominions as New Zealand, which are entirely excluded from the Preference. Therefore, all that was said about the failure of these Preferences to achieve even what their promoters pretend they are intended to achieve, applies with a hundredfold emphasis to this particular duty. This Amendment does give the Chancellor of the Exchequer an opportunity to answer the questions more fully that were put to him by my right hon. Friend(Sir D. Maclean). He is trying to ride two horses. He has got to get both the Protectionists and the Coalition Liberals into the Lobby with him if possible, and the result of the last Division has shown that he has been less successful in doing that in that last Division than in any previous Division that has taken place since this last Parliament assembled. He said the duties are being imposed for revenue purposes and for sumptuary reasons, to discourage luxuries, but if he accepts my Amendment he will both get more revenue and discourage luxuries. There is an increasing feeling among Tariff Reformers that the Budget could be boldly defended on the ground that it is a Protectionist Budget. The "Morning Post" said even this morning: It is unwise on the part of the Government to insist so much, as some Ministers are inclined to do on the argument that the Cobdenite principles are nut necessarily infringed. Why not say frankly what you desire? The hon. Member for Birkenhead made a speech, and said, "Wait until the 1st September, when we shall get the general tariff." If that is a defence, it is a defence, and let the Chancellor of the Exchequer make it.


I beg to second the Amendment.


I am in sympathy with my hon. and gallant Friend who has moved the Amendment, and against the Preference side of this Budget, but I do not wish to deal with that point now.


That is the only point we can discuss now.


The point raised by the hon. and gallant Member has been discussed two or three times to-day, and I must express my growing surprise at the arguments which he uses in opposition to Preference. I think he is rather hard put to it when he has to rely on such arguments as that because this Preference will affect the West Indies largely and beneficially it must be a source of irritation in New Zealand, where they will derive no benefit. Let me say in passing that if we affect the trade and industry of one part of the Empire beneficially, the results are not likely to be confined to that particular part of the Empire, and the relation of the West Indies with Canada are of a kind which is certain to cause a reaction in favour of Canada from any increased prosperity in the West Indies. What about New Zealand? What New Zealand authority has the hon. and gallant Member for the irritation which he expresses? I think it was at the 1907 Conference where the representatives of the Dominions assembled together expressly disclaimed the idea that there could be any ground of complaint in one colony which did not derive a benefit from a Preference in our duties because other Coloniess or Dominions did, and the resolution accepted by the British Government, and in pursuance in which I am proposing them, was supported by the leaders of both the New Zealand parties representing the Dominion of New Zealand in the Conference of 1917. I hope I shall always be attentive to the grievances of our fellow citizens in the Dominions overseas, but I think that the representatives of those Dominions may be left to speak for themselves, and that imaginary grievances need not be created for them, in spite of and in face of their express wishes, by my hon. and gallant Friend. I am very sorry if I have not made my position perfectly clear to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. It is not for want of trying, and I think they will do me the credit to believe that it is not because it is my habit to try and obscure my thoughts and conceal them from the House. It is because the principle upon which I am acting is such a simple one that they will not believe that it is a real one. I will restate it. His Majesty's Government were parties to a resolution, passed in the Imperial War Conference of 1917, that as soon as might be there should be established a Preference in duties, to quote the words of the resolution, "now or hereafter existing." We must have duties on spirits, and I propose to embody, in accordance with the undertaking of His Majesty's Government, in these duties the principle of a Preference, and in this case alone, for the reasons I have expressed, the Preference is given by way of surcharge on foreign spirits instead of reduction in the duty on Colonial spirits. For that reason, if my hon. and gallant Friend's Amendment were carried, we should be not gainers but losers to a trifling extent. My hon. Friend challenged me to disavow Cobdenite principles. I disavow them. I have disavowed them for many years, and, if it is any satisfaction to my hon. Friend, I repeat the disavowal. I only permit myself to add that, if you summoned Mr. Cobden to the new world in which we are now living, I am not sure that he would not disavow—in fact, I am sure he would—some of the principles upon which he preached and acted during his life, and I am sure I am on safe ground in stating that he would hasten to disavow, and with enthusiasm, many of those who claim to be his followers and supporters.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution.

Mr. O'CONNOR rose—


We are still on spirits.


I should have thought the fact that an Irish Member rose to address the House would have brought home to your mind and memory that spirits was the subject which I intended to raise.


I thought, perhaps, it was Excise to which the hon. Gentleman wished to refer in connection with spirits.


We are more interested in the Customs Duty.


I may say that spirits have pursued me all through my political career. In fact, the very first time I took part in defeating the Administration was on the question of whisky, in June, 1885, when I had the support, I believe, of some of the hon. Members who are now supporting the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was followed in my recollection by a speech of Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, one of the most eminent Chancellors of the Exchequer we ever had, in which he said that there were a great many reasons indeed against his increasing the tax on whisky, and somebody in the House said there were seventy-three reasons. That happened to be the exact number of the Members of the Irish party at the moment. Now there are only seven instead of seventy-three, and the result is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can do with a light heart, and with perfect security, what his eminent predecessor could not do when there was a large number of Irish Members here I am father astonished, really, that the right hon. Gentleman has not equipped his knowledge on this question, if I may say so, by the study of the literature upon it, which is very important. He will know as well as I do that when the financial relations between England and Ireland were made the subject of a Commission, which sat for several years, it was reported that the taxable capacity of Ireland was exceeded by, if I remember rightly, £3,500.000. At that time the taxation of Ireland was something like £11,000,000. I do not know what the exact figures are to-day, but I am told the amount is over £30,000,000. That Commission reported in favour of the reduction of Irish taxation proportionately as between the two countries. When this Commission reported there was a very remarkable article in the "Edinburgh Review." The authorship of the article has never been avowed, but I believe it was due to the very brilliant and penetrating pen of Lord Milner. In the course of that article, while dissenting from the findings of the Commission, the author expressed the view that it was a very serious and questionable thing that Mr. Gladstone had imposed additional taxation in Ireland immediately after the famine, and I am told that, even an unemotional individual as the late Lord Goschen said to one of his friends that when he read the Budget of Mr. Gladstone—I think it was when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer for the first time in the early fifties—it sent a shudder through him to see the additional taxation that was imposed by him on a country just emerging from all the horrors and terrors of the Irish famine.

Yet here to-day we have the Chancellor of the Exchequer, forgetful of all the literature upon the subject, forgetful of all the pleas made to him, not merely from Irish Members, but from Englishmen in sympathy with Ireland's demands, coming forward and adding an enormous addition to this taxation upon Ireland. So far as the distillers and those in the trade themselves are concerned, they have made their own case. I make the case of the people of Ireland, and I assert that in adding to the taxation as described by your own Commission, and admitted by a large number of your public men, you are making an enormous additional burden. I do not think it is fair, and I am perfectly sure it will be one of the elements—and there are enough already—leading to discontent in Ireland. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman is taking this course, and I hope it will not have the serious and prejudicial effects which I anticipate.

Resolution reported,