The Earl of Liverpool
, in rising to move the second reading of this Bill, which proposed to legislate on a subject so delicate in its nature, and so deeply interesting and important to all classes of the community, said, he was desirous of having it understood, that the opinion which he had formed respecting it, was not one hastily taken up, but the result of long, anxious, and unbiassed consideration. He had been for the last three years revolving the subject in his mind, and looking at it in every possible light, and in all its bearings and consequences; he had read, with all the attention in his power, all the evidence which had been given on the question, and all the publications which had been given to the world, many of them of great value, on both sides; and he had done so certainly without any particular bias on his mind, either one way or the other. There were subjects on which perhaps any mind must be under some degree of bias, in favour of one view of the subject rather than another; but if there ever was a question on which his mind was totally destitute of all prejudice, completely free from any undue bias towards one particular view of it rather than another, this was that question. He begged pardon of the House for thus taking up its time on a point which might be considered as personal to himself; but such was the state of his mind with respect to the question now under their lordships consideration.
In attending, then, to this important 176 subject, the first view of it which presented itself was this—what was the situation of the country for which their lordships were now called upon to legislate? The country was to be regarded, both as a great agricultural and a great commercial country; and its power and opulence were founded upon and derived from, not one, but both of these sources. This ought to be carefully kept in mind, in considering the nature and consequences of the measure which he now proposed to their lordships for adoption. He said that it was carefully to be kept in mind, because it would show that we ought not to be too much influenced by any line of policy, with respect to this subject, which had been adopted by countries whose situation and circumstances were materially different from those of the country for which their lordships were now to legislate. The policy of importation had, as he was well aware, been adopted by many small republics, ancient and modern—small republics, such as Holland, Genoa, Venice, and others that might be mentioned. These had looked to foreign countries for their supplies of grain; and, as far as they were concerned, that policy might be perfectly sound and proper. But what was their situation? and what were the circumstances in which they were placed? They had risen by their commercial pursuits to a rank and opulence far beyond the proportion of their territorial extent or population. Their condition was such, that they could not have done so by the encouragement of agriculture. Their territory was too limited to admit of the successful adoption of any such policy. Even their population was far beyond what could be supported by the produce of their lands; and the extent of their population, as well as their worth, power, and rank among nations, depended upon circumstances which rendered a large foreign supply indispensably necessary. It was impossible for them to feed their population without these supplies from abroad; and, therefore, a policy which should have for its object the raising at home as much grain as should be sufficient for the consumption of their own population, was totally out of the question. That population, though very large in proportion to their extent of territory, was but small when compared with that of the more considerable nations; and a policy which might be extremely fitting to be adopted 177 by a state whose population did not exceed a million or two millions, might be most unfit and improper for a nation whose population consisted of 10, 15, or 20 millions. A nation of the latter description could not suffer itself to be dependent on foreign supplies for the necessaries of life, without the most palpable impolicy and the greatest danger. In the case of a nation whose wealth and power were founded partly on agricultural industry, and partly on commercial industry, the obvious policy was to encourage both in a due proportion, and not to sacrifice the one to the other. The policy, then, of such a country as this was clearly—that both should be encouraged. His decided opinion was, that the commercial interests of the country ought not to be sacrificed to the agricultural; but with all due regard to the commercial interest,—and he had been educated in a school where he had been taught highly to value the commercial interest,—he must also say, that the agricultural interest ought not to be sacrificed to the commercial. The obvious policy was, to pay attention to both in a due proportion. While he said this, however, he wished carefully to guard against its being supposed that these interests were at all distinct from each other. On the contrary, he trusted he should be enabled before he sat down to show to demonstration that they were the same.
The general principle, supposing all nations, or at least the most considerable nations, to act upon it, was, that in these cases the Legislature ought not to interfere, but leave every thing to find its own level. In such a state of the world, it was perfectly clear that every nation ought to be left to prosecute without interference that particular species of industry for which, by its nature and condition, it was in all respects best adapted. Each nation could then purchase whatever commodities it might require, from those quarters where they could be raised and brought home at the cheapest rate, and of the best quality. If that system were to be adopted by all the considerable nations of the world, there could be no doubt but that it was the system which all must consider as the most proper and desirable. But, unfortunately, the period was not yet arrived when nations would have the wisdom to act upon any such system. It was unnecessary for him to tell their lordships, that the actual state of the world was very different from what it must be before any 178 nation in particular could with safety rely upon such a line of policy. Then if such a system could not be pursued, when considered in connection with the regulations adopted by the several nations of the world, ought the principle to be acted upon by any individual nation's having regard to the different descriptions of industry presented within its own limits? That was a more doubtful question. But this at least he took to be clear, that no nation could so far act upon it without exceptions. He admitted that these exceptions ought to be as few as possible, that the legislative regulations ought to be as limited as the situation and circumstances of the nation could allow. But still exceptions there must be; and with respect to the system adopted by this country, he had only to request their lordships to look at the statute books, and see how numerous these exceptions were. The Legislature had been in the constant habit of interfering, and the plan had grown up and extended through so many ramifications, that it often became absolutely necessary to afford protection to one species of industry in order to prevent its falling a sacrifice to those descriptions of industry which otherwise would be more favoured. Many of these enactments might not have been deemed proper at a more advanced period; and if their lordships were now to begin on a new system, the course of legislation would in all probability be materially different: but these statutes had long been acted upon, and the condition of the country had in a great measure adapted itself to the system. Whatever might be their opinion of these measures, if they had been for the first time proposed, they must now take them, as they stood, and legislate with a proper regard to the existing system, considered in all its bearings and relations. The nature and object of that system evidently had been to bolster up particular descriptions of industry by a variety of protecting regulations. What was the state of their legislation with respect to their woollens, their cottons, their silks, their potteries, and a variety of other manufactures that might be mentioned? All these had been encouraged by high protecting duties, which in some cases amounted almost to a prohibition, so that foreign commodities of the same description were almost entirely excluded from the home market, While such had been the encouragement afforded to these branches of industry, their lordships would consider what would 179 be the stale of the agricultural interest if it were to be left without similar encouragement. Under such circumstances, not to protect the agricultural interest, would be in reality to discourage it; and no one, he presumed, would contend that this species of industry ought to be directly discouraged. This argument as to the expediency of reciprocal protection, was not confined to the case of commerce and agriculture as viewed in connexion with each other. It was also to be considered, that one branch of agricultural produce was already protected. The importation of foreign cattle was prohibited; and if protection was to be afforded to any description of agricultural produce, he conceived that the chief encouragement ought to be given to the production of grain. If their lordships could alter the whole system upon which the country had hitherto acted, that was one view of the subject; but if it was impossible to alter it, or if it was thought expedient to continue rather than to encounter the hazard and inconvenience of alteration now that the plan had been so long acted upon, their lordships, he apprehended, must in justice afford protection to the agricultural industry of the country; for he repeated that, under such circumstances, not to protect was to discourage. He had said that the exceptions to the general principle ought to be as few as possible; and there were some who thought that whatever the exceptions might be in other cases, the commerce of grain ought to be free and unrestrained: but so totally did he differ from that opinion, that even if an entire new system were to be adopted, he should say, that as far as respected the interests of the corn-grower, and the navigation of the country, some protection ought to be given. Though every other species of industry were left free and unrestrained, these, in his opinion, ought to receive particular encouragement, if other countries acted on the same system.
Then in looking at this measure with a view to the commercial as well as the agricultural interests of the nation, he had been induced to examine what had been the effect of the policy which had at different times been pursued by this country with respect to the subject now under consideration. For nearly a century, up to 1766, this country had not only grown a sufficiency of corn for its own support, but even been an exporting country. From 1760 downwards it had been an 180 importing country. During the first of these periods, the agriculture of the country had been protected by a strong duty on importation, nearly amounting to a prohibition. That system was given up during the second period, though it might be said to have been renewed some time since, but in a very relaxed degree. One naturally looked back to a period when the situation of things was so different from what they were at present. He knew there were a number of persons who thought that such a state of things, in any country, was by no means beneficial. It had been contended, that an exporting country was always a very poor one. With respect to this he wished to ask, during the first of these periods, from the reign of Charles the 2nd to 1766, when we were an exporting country, if we were in other respects deficient in commerce or industry, or if our manufactures were decreasing? So far the contrary of this, while we were an exporting country we were also increasing in our population, our commerce, and our manufactures, as much as we had increased since. If they looked back, and took only the period from the Revolution to 1750, they would find that our foreign commerce had during that time trebled; they would find that the exports of our merchandize, which at the Revolution amounted only to 4 millions, in 1750 amounted to 12 millions, and before 1756 to between 14 and 15 millions. They would find that our shipping, during the same period, had nearly trebled; they would find that our population, though on this subject they had not the same exact data to go on, was increasing rapidly; that our domestic industry of all sorts was also increasing rapidly. It could not be said that this arose from the absence of national debt, or from the exemption from taxes; for during the period to which he was alluding, and at one time in particular, Our national debt was nearly as great in proportion to our wealth, as it was at present; and the taxes were also very high. If the state of things when we were an exporting country, could be shown to be upon the whole unfavourable, if the prosperity of the country could be called in question, then they might also question whether the general poverty of the country in all other respects did not more than counterbalance the comparative advantage of being an exporting country. But whilst this state of things continued, our com- 181 merce, trade, and manufactures were flourishing, and the price of grain was more uniformly cheap than had ever been known either before or since. This proved that the policy of affording protection to our agriculture, was not inconsistent with the flourishing state of our trade, manufactures, or industry, in all other respects.
He now came to the principle of the Bill, with respect to the policy of rendering ourselves as independent as possible of foreign supply, as he had already he thought stated there could be no doubt. It was not a question in this case as to the interests of the English landlord or the Irish landlord, nor did he profess to move the second reading of the Bill upon any such ground. The great object was the interest of the consumer; and this, he contended, would be effectually promoted by the present measure, the effect of which would be to render grain cheaper instead of dearer. The important point to attain was a steady and moderate price. In ancient times, when the system of granaries was acted upon, this was necessarily the object. To have exhausted the granaries, in order to give an extraordinary cheapness to grain, could only be followed by scarcity and dearness; so, where the supply was fluctuating, a year of extraordinary cheapness must necessarily be followed by one of dearness, unless measures were adopted to insure a regular domestic supply, and by this means a uniform, steady, and moderate price. The great object was to prevent that fluctuation in the price of the first necessary of life which was so injurious to the consumer. This had been the object of the measures of this nature that had been before resorted to; but there was now a most important consideration which had not then been entered into, he alluded to the supply from Ireland. Since the Act of 1806 for allowing the free intercourse of grain with Ireland, it had become evident from the supply sent from thence here, that it was only necessary to permit capital to flow there, and that there was then no limit to the quantity which might be furnished from Ireland for the supply of this part of the United Kingdom. He admitted that grain might be raised cheaper there than in England; but this circumstance, which formed the basis of an argument of a noble earl (Grey) on a former night, presented no objection to the present Bill. The object 182 was not the protection of the English or the Irish landlord, but the general interests of the empire, the general interests of its agriculture, and the general interests of the great mass of consumers in the whole Untied Kingdom. Even if the consequence must be to lower the rents of the English landlords, and raise those of the Irish landlords, still he contended that this formed no argument whatever, in his view of the question, against the Bill, which embraced the whole interests of the empire.
It had been said that there was no evidence to justify the price of 80s. The fact was, that the evidence upon this point varied from 72s. to 96s. The medium of these prices, according to the weight of the evidence, might perhaps have been accurately calculated by a noble lord on a former night at 85s.; but under the circumstances of a diminution of taxation and of other burthens upon agriculture, the price of 80s. had been fixed upon, and that he maintained was a fair protecting price. It had been argued most fallaciously, as he contended, that this import price of 80s. would be the minimum price of the market. This was negatived by all experience, it appearing by the returns that the market price had been uniformly below the import price, except in years of scarcity, and the following years, when the consequences of scarcity were necessarily felt. Instead of being the minimum, the import price had been generally more the maximum in the market. There was, therefore, no ground for believing that the import price of 80s. would be the minimum. price in the market, except in years of scarcity and those years which followed, when the consequences of that scarcity were of course felt. Even admitting, however, that the price would be 80s., still he contended, that the price of the quartern loaf ought not to be more than 1s., a price which could not now be fell by the consumer as an evil. Much misrepresentation, had gone forth upon this subject; and from the quarter through which it had come, that the effect of this measure (still taking the import price of 80s. as the market price) would be to raise the price of the quartern loaf to 1s. 4d., it certainly was not to be wondered at that such should be the belief. He had no doubt from the information he had received, that many of the petitioners to that House against the measure, had been induced to petition in consequence of this erroneous impression, 183 and that, they would not persist in complaining of it, were they convinced that the price of the quartern loaf, even if the market price of grain should equal the import price, would not be raised above 1s. That the price should be above that under the present measure, taking the market price of grain at 80s. was to be attributed to the erroneous system of the assize of bread, which had no connexion with the present Bill. He by no means admitted, that the effect of the present measure would be to raise the market price of grain to 80s. as the minimum. On the contrary, reasoning from all experience upon the subject, he was convinced that it would have a tendency to lower the price of grain, and keep it steady and moderate. It had been argued, that the effect of this measure would be, by raising the price of provisions to raise the price of labour, and thus compel our manufacturers to emigrate, by enabling foreign nations to undersell them. He contended, however, that the success of our manufactures did not depend upon cheapness of labour, but upon capital, credit and fuel. The superior advantages we derived from capital and credit were well known, an inestimable advantage was also our abundance of fuel, The importance of this latter article was clearly shewn by the thriving establishments of manufactories in those countries where wcoal as plentiful; our great excellence in machinery gave us likewise a decided superiority. Cheapness of labour was, therefore, a secondary consideration, and they had the evidence of the manufacturers themselves at the bar of the House with regard to the Orders in Council, that they considered cheapness of labour as comparatively of little consequence. As to the labourers themselves who were employed in manufactures, he had no doubt that if they had to choose between cheapness of bread and a reduction of wages, and bread at its present price with their present wages, they would not hesitate to prefer the latter. With regard to the effect in the rise of the price of grain, compared with that of wages, there was no doubt that wages, particularly of labourers by the day or week, had risen in proportion to the rise in the price of grain, the wages of those who worked by the piece had not perhaps risen in the same proportion. What, however, was there in other countries of superior cheapness? They had the evidence of a communication made to the French Legislative Body by a member of 184 the Executive Government, that grain in that country had risen in 32 years, from 1756 to 1788, from 26s. to 50s. a quarter. Thus, therefore, the rise in this country from 1756, from 42s. to 80s. was only in the same proportion as that in France; and let it be recollected, that during the period of 32 years our principal manufactures were brought to perfection, to that state in which their productions were so decidedly superior to those of the manufactures of other nations.
It had been urged against this measure, that it would have an injurious effect upon this great metropolis, by greatly increasing the price of grain in London compared with the country districts. The returns upon the table, however, proved that it was decidedly an error to suppose that the price in the London market was above that in the country, it being rendered evident, that for a series of years, except in a very few instances, the price in the London market was actually lower than the average of the twelve maritime districts. It was therefore evident that the measure could not have the effect imputed to it of so greatly raising the price in the London market, still less of raising it so far above the import price, which was erroneously assumed as the market price. London also, it should be recollected, was a port, with a great number of advantages with regard to importation, and itself situated in the midst of corn counties, with a great facility of supply. If, therefore, any momentary inconvenience was sustained in consequence of the vast supply required for the consumption of this great metropolis, it was soon amply compensated for by a supply more than adequate to the demand.
He had thus gone through the principal arguments applicable to the question. He must, however, observe, that the agricultural labourer, who had not the same means of making his complaints known as the labourers of other classes, was fully entitled to their lordships attention, as the the distress of that class of persons must be a serious evil to the country. It was with these views of the subject that he moved the second reading of the present Bill, convinced that a reasonable protection of the agriculture of the country was essentially necessary to the general welfare. He did not mean in the least to undervalue our commerce or our manufactures; but when put in competition with the immense resources to be derived from 185 the certainty of a domestic supply of the first necessaries of life, they were comparatively trifling. To those who said that we might always obtain a supply from foreign nations, he need only remind them of the immense advantages of being enabled to rely upon our own resources. The article of naval stores, for which we were partly dependent upon foreign nations, it had been said we could always procure—but what was the effect of this dependence? The article of hemp had been raised during the war from 40l. to 60l. and afterwards to 100l. per ton. This, it was true, was of comparatively little importance, making merely a difference to the country of 200,000l. in the naval estimates; but what would be the effect if we were dependent in the same way upon foreign nations for the necessary articles of subsistence, the price of which they might raise, or altogether withhold them at pleasure? It was unnecessary to enlarge upon this, the dreadful consequences of such a policy must be obvious to every one. At the close of the American war, it was said that the sun of this country had set never to rise; but events had proved, that, relying upon our own resources, we had been enabled to carry on successfully a twenty years war, and to cover ourselves with glory and renown. It was of the greatest importance that we should look at home for those resources which the country was so well able to furnish, and by extending the fostering hand of protection to render those resources available to all the purposes of national greatness. By agreeing to this Bill nothing was risked, but in what a dangerous situation might we not be placed if the measure were rejected! If the Bill were passed, and any inconvenience were found to arise from it, a remedy might be immediately applied; but if the measure was rejected, and capital in consequence withdrawn from agriculture, fifty years might be necessary to replace us in our present situation. A great and alarming evil might thus be produced by rejecting the Bill and discouraging and diminishing agriculture, by rendering us dependent upon foreign nations for a supply which they might withhold or increase the price of at pleasure; whilst by passing the Bill, encouragement and support would be given to the agriculture of the country, tending to the material increase of our own resources, and consequently of our prosperity; and if any evil practically arose from the Bill, a remedy 186 might be promptly and immediately applied. His lordship concluded, by moving the second reading of the Bill.
The Earl of Carlisle lamented that the motion of his noble friend near him (earl Grey) had not been acceded to, as, in that case, their lordships might have been put in possession of more ample information on this most difficult subject. He contended, that the greater part of the argument of the noble earl who had just sat down was fallacious. The noble earl had contended, that a high price of corn, producing a high price of labour, was by no means injurious to the labouring classes of the community. This might be true to a certain extent; but there could be no doubt that, to the lowest rank of those classes—to the individuals who worked by task, a high price of corn would be productive of infinite misery, as it would not be attended by any circumstance of alleviation. He was far from thinking that legislative interference was demanded by the great mass of the agricultural interest of the country. This he knew, that in the county in which his own possessions were situated, not a single tenant of his had expressed any wish on the subject. Further north, it was well known to their lordships, that wool was the article in the produce of which the community at large were most interested; and unquestionably no depreciation had taken place in the value of that article. He remembered himself having sold wool at 7s. a stone; he had lately, however, sold it at 24s. a stone; and had he been as sagacious as some of his neighbours, he might, by waiting a little longer, have procured 32s. He was firmly persuaded that the measure before their lordships was one which ought not to be precipitated; and he intreated them to pause, in order that, if possible, the cloud which rested on the subject might be dispelled by the production of further information.
§ Earl Fortescue
observed, that he certainly was one of those individuals to whom it had been most unjustly imputed that they were biassed by their interest in, their proceedings on this subject. The whole of his life had unquestionably been spent in connexion with the agricultural part of the community. He paid the highest compliment to the liberal, enlightened, and comprehensive view of the subject which had been taken by the noble earl who had moved the second reading of the Bill, and he confessed that 187 his own private opinion had originally been in favour of the measure; but on a full consideration of all the circumstances of the case, and particularly on account of the very general sentiment which had been expressed by petitions from all parts of the country—petitions which he was happy to observe were couched in the most temperate and becoming language—he was disposed to decline giving his assent to the Bill passing into a law.
§ Lord Grenville
rose to state his opinion on this question—a question of the highest national importance as relating to an article of the first necessity—a question respecting which no consideration, no feeling, no intemperance either of one party or of another, should prevent him from discharging his duty. He owned that the first moment he heard that such a measure as that before their lordships was in contemplation, he had formed a decided opinion that if the project were carried into effect, it would be productive of infinite mischief to the community at large. At that time he conceived that it originated with a very few individuals; but when he discovered that it was not founded on the insulated opinion of a few individuals, however respectable in character, but that it had been adopted by his Majesty's Government, and was to receive the support of all their influence, he felt the seriousness of the occasion; he felt that the interval which would elapse before the measure would come under the consideration of their lordships would be too short, even with all that previous knowledge of which an attentive examination of it at former periods had possessed him, to admit him even satisfactorily to review that previous knowledge, and the grounds of that original opinion, in a way commensurate to the importance of the subject, much less to acquire all that additional information which recent circumstances had rendered so indispensably necessary to a wise and deliberate decision upon it. But while he thus lamented the unbecoming precipitation which had been manifested on this occasion, he begged that that regret might not be attributed to any new doubts which had arisen in his own mind, or which had been produced by any thing which he had seen or heard in that House or elsewhere, or by the mass of enlightened discussion which had been in various ways submitted to the public on the subject. On the contrary, his original opinion had been strengthened by all that he 188 had thus seen and heard, and most of all by that which had just fallen from the noble earl on the opposite bench. He was now no longer left to conjecture the reasons by which the supporters of the Bill were influenced. The noble earl had detailed the motives by which they were actuated; and he must say, that the decided conclusion to which that detail had brought him was, that the motives were inadequate to the support, not alone of a measure of the extent proposed, but of any legislative interference whatever on the subject. Precipitate as had been the steps taken by the advocates of the Bill, and much as it was to be regretted that so little time had been allowed for investigation and discussion, it was some consolation to their lordships that no inconsiderable information was to be derived from the report of their lordships committee. Any one who looked at that report, as well as at the report of the committee of another place—who recollected the conversations which had occurred among their lordships on the subject last year, and who had read the publications which had appeared upon it, must allow that he would not be guilty of any great misstatement, if he declared that he had conceived the arguments of the advocates of the Bill to rest principally on the urgent distress of the agriculturist, and of the indispensable necessity of relieving him from the pressure which the diminution of the price of corn had brought upon him. It was an unquestionable principle of domestic policy, that a legislature had no right to relieve one class of the community at the expense of another class. To do that, would be not to distribute that equal justice which they were bound to distribute to all classes. If it were possible to relieve the distress of one class (and he could assure their lordships that no one felt more sensibly than him-self the distress of any large portion of the people) without throwing the burthen on any other class, a measure by which such an effect would be produced, should receive his cordial concurrence; but on the contrary, in a case in which gain could not be created, in which loss could not be avoided, in which all that could be done was to change the pressure from one body of people to another body of people, he would earnestly deprecate any legislative proceeding whatever. If, therefore, the measure under their lordships consideration had rested on these latter grounds, he must have characterised it as one utterly 189 unbecoming, and utterly unworthy of their lordships adoption. It was therefore that he felt great pleasure (from whatever cause the change might have proceeded) in bearing the noble earl disclaim any intention on the part of the supporters of the Bill of considering the agricultural interest in preference to any other interest of the country. So partial a proposition, had it been made, would, he trusted, have been received by their lordships as any partial proposition ought to be received—the more especially as the interests which it would have advised them exclusively to consider, were so intimately connected with those of their lordships. This intention, however, had been disclaimed, and the question now remained to be argued as a question of a general nature, to be determined on the grounds of general advantage or evil—without reference to the farming or to any other particular interest—without reference to present times or circumstances—but with reference alone to such a system of enlarged and liberal policy as might ultimately, if not immediately, be productive of the greatest benefits to the whole mass of the population of the empire.
Sure he was that there was no man among their lordships so destitute of enlightened views on this subject as not to feel that it was with this general, and not with any particular bearing, that it ought to be discussed. There was, however, one remark made by the noble earl, which he was sorry to hear, and which he confessed had excited his surprise, as it appeared to attach importance to a consideration, which he had hoped better information had dismissed from all their minds. The noble earl had told them that they were to look at the actual situation of the policy of the country; and in considering the propriety of adopting measures for the permanent protection of agriculture, to recollect that legislative measures had already been adopted for the protection of commerce and manufactures. He owned that he should have thought the noble earl's speech more consonant to a wise policy, had such an allusion been altogether excluded from it. The consideration, whether the duties which had been imposed some centuries ago on the importation of foreign manufactures, were founded on a wise or unwise view of the subject, had nothing to do with the present question, which rested on its own merits, and which ought to be de- 190 cided without any extrinsic reference. The just and only consideration for their lordships at present was, what effect the present measure would have on the interests of the community? If the measures which had formerly been adopted for the protection of trade and manufactures were right, let them be continued; if wrong (of which the noble earl himself seemed to have little doubt,) let them be abrogated; not suddenly, but with that caution with, which all policy, however erroneous, so engrafted into our usage by time, should be changed; but let it be consecrated as a principle of legislation, that in no case should the grounds for advising the Legislature to afford any particular protection, rest on the protection which might have been afforded in any other quarter. In fact, he could not well conceive how the noble earl could argue, that measures, which he admitted to have been wrong with respect to manufactures, would nevertheless be right with respect to agriculture. If there were two great branches of national interest, the one subject to the operation of a system comparatively termed wise, the other subject to the operation of a system allowed to be erroneous and mischievous, what necessity, he would ask, existed for making these systems uniform at all? If such a necessity did exist (which he absolutely denied), ought not the Legislature to endeavour to produce that uniformity, by taking such steps as would bring back to the line of right the system that was acknowledged to be unwise, rather than to distort from the line of right the system which was acknowledged to be wise? Was not the first of these attempts to be advised, and was not the last to be deprecated? And let it be considered that our national interests did not form themselves into two great branches. A great majority of the people, as on the one hand they could not be benefitted by any prohibition for the protection of the manufacturer, so on the other they could not be benefitted by any prohibition for the protection of the agriculturist, unless, indeed, that prohibition had the effect of lessening the price of corn, which was a subject of separate and subsequent consideration. This great majority however, uninterested as they were on the subject, were already subject to great restraint, in consequence of the prohibitions that had been adopted for the protection of the manufacturer; and, if the Bill before their lordships should pass into 191 a law, they would be subject to farther and much greater restraint, in consequence of the prohibitions that would be adopted for the protection of the agriculturist. It would be an extraordinary mode of doing justice, thus to declare that because a large, the largest, part of the community were already oppressed by favours shown to one particular class, they should be still farther oppressed by favours shown to another particular class. The facts on which this argument rested were these:—It was about three centuries ago that this prohibitory system commenced, by the entire prohibition of some articles of foreign commerce, and by the imposition of prohibitory duties on others. But if the operation of those laws were considered at the present moment, it would be found that they were almost null. They were not entirely null, because the abrogation of some of those prohibitions would much benefit the British manufacturer. A great mass of the manufacturers of this country were so far from wishing for the protection of the Legislature against foreign competition, that it was well known to their lordships that those manufacturers were able to undersell their competitors in foreign markets.
He stated this with the more confidence, because it was not his single opinion. He had that morning received the result of a meeting of the woollen manufacturers of Gloucestershire—forming no inconsiderable portion of the manufacturers of the kingdom, and whose manufacture had in former times received, in a peculiar degree, legislative protection,—and he would communicate to their lordships their opinion on the subject. He should do this with the more satisfaction, as that opinion would tend to solve a doubt which seemed to exist in the mind of a noble friend of his (earl Grey), who had so eloquently but so fruitlessly endeavoured to persuade their lordships to allow further time for the consideration of this most important question. His noble friend had observed, that it would be difficult to say that the agriculturist ought not to be enabled to obtain more for his corn if he were compelled to pay more for his coat. To this remark the Gloucestershire woollen manufacturers made a most satisfactory reply. He would read to their lordships an extract from their resolutions. After expatiating on the advantages which the country had derived from its commerce, those resolutions proceeded in the follow- 192 ing words, viz. "Although the principle of protection to trade may at different periods have been carried to an extent incompatible with the true principles of political wisdom, yet the statute-book of the country may be adduced as historical evidence of the different view which, our ancestors (themselves great land proprietors) had of the value and effect of commerce." Then came the passage to which he wished particularly to direct their lordships attention: "It is true that the progress of reason and the developement of the real causes of the wealth of nations, and of the true principles of trade, which, after-inquiries and the lapse of experience through later ages have produced, have proved many of the regulations of former times to have been unnecessary, and the system of protection and exclusive trade erroneous and impolitic. This principle of exclusion has recently been adduced as matter of reproach to the commercial interest, and of imitation to the landed; but a principle so completely exploded and abandoned by the one, is hardly worth the adoption of the other, as the most enlightened and strenuous advocates for the freedom of trade are to be found amongst the commercial members of the community. The woollen manufacturers have been particularly instanced as protected from competition by duties of the heaviest description, to which the manufacturers have only to contrast their recent policy, and to adduce the instance of the commercial treaty in 1787 with France, their greatest and most formidable rival; where all exclusion was readily given up, and the manufactures of each country admitted to the other on a small and equal duty." He could not hope to state to their lordships the liberal principles which he recommended for their adoption more forcibly than they were thus stated by the Gloucestershire woollen manufacturers, who had so well expressed their confidence in the total inefficacy of the protecting system with respect to their manufactures in the present moment. A just argument might therefore be drawn from this declaration against the extension of the system, to an interest in which, by analogy, its effects would be equally pernicious.
Having said thus much on the observation of the noble earl, which in his opinion had demanded animadversion, he would proceed to examine the grounds of general policy on which the proposed measure 193 rested. The noble earl had declared that the Bill was intended to benefit the consumer, by establishing and promoting an adequate, cheap, and steady supply of grain for the consumption of this island. That was proclaimed by the noble earl to be the general principle of the Bill. All partial views, all ideas of benefitting a particular class he disclaimed. The noble earl professed that the measure was calculated to last for twenty years, and to produce the effect which he had already described. The first question that occurred to his mind was, What necessity there was for legislating at all? There was unfortunately in our times, and more particularly in our country, the most injudicious and erroneous idea prevalent, that all the inconveniencies which must naturally occur in the condition of social institutions might be immediately regulated by legislation. There was a sort of fondness and anxiety for legislation—a kind of zealous persuasion that the wisdom and power of Parliament could do that to which he readily acknowledged if any legislature were competent, the British Parliament was that legislature, but which it was beyond human wisdom and human power to effect. If he were called upon to describe one of the greatest causes of mischief in this country, one of the tendencies the most deeply to be lamented, he knew nothing to which he should be more disposed to advert, he knew nothing which appeared to him to be a more prolific source of evil, than this proneness to, this over-love of legislative interference. He believed it would be much more advantageous to the community at large—he was sure that it would be infinitely more beneficial to the interests of agriculture and of trade, if the Legislature of this country could be persuaded to abstain from endeavouring to meet temporary inconveniencies at every turn, by some bill, some protection, some remedy. He was persuaded that nothing could be more wise than that principle, with the soundness of which the noble earl had declared that he was fully impressed, which it was the fashion always to admire in theory, but always to abandon in practice, of refraining from perpetual attempts to supply defects, to correct errors, to guide speculations, to restrain enterprize, to limit profits, to reduce hazards, by legislative interposition. If this were true, and that it was true in theory at least no man disbelieved,—if it was true that Providence 194 had implanted in the mind of every man an industrious and sagacious view of his own interests, by which he was much better directed to the attainment of his objects than by any legislative assistance, why were their lordships condemned to hear that it was so, and condemned at the same time to witness perpetual and successful attempts at a violation of the principle? If the principle were inapplicable, then it must be false and not true. If applicable—if not an abstract speculation, but capable of being adopted as a rule and guide for the conduct and government of nations, it was applicable to all circumstances and to all seasons. None, however, seemed so ready to admit the justice of such principles, as those who, the next moment, dared to violate them. But if those principles were true (and no one would deny them in theory), that every legislative interference to protect particular branches of commerce, had uniformly and without exception operated to the diminution of national wealth, then he would ask their lordships, whether there was any one description of trade—any one article of commerce—any one commodity, to which that principle so clearly applied, as that which formed the basis of the subsistence of our population.
There were two essential properties in which the trade of corn differed from almost every other commodity which formed an article of commerce. In the first place, the increase of the subsistence of a community had a natural tendency to augment its own demand; in proportion as the price of food was lowered, and was rendered more easily accessible to the great mass of the population, the population itself would be increased. In other articles of trade, if the demand for them was foreseen, an adequate supply could be in general provided, to meet that demand: but it was directly the reverse in respect to the demand of an increasing population; for there if the demand was supplied, it only enlarged itself. That general principle had been strongly exemplified in the relative increase of the population of this country, with the relative increase of its subsistence. Much argument had been used by the noble earl to prove that because, at some former period, we had been an exporting country in the article of grain, we could therefore become so again; but he must own that, to him, the whole of the argument had appeared most unsatisfactory. At the same time, he was 195 far from agreeing in another proposition which had been too much insisted upon in the course of this discussion, that an exporting, must necessarily be a poor country. The position was much too general, and required to be greatly qualified, before it could be received as correct. With regard to the system of prohibiting the importation of grain, which had been enforced during the early part of the last century, he apprehended it was not historically true that that system had been found to be unattended by any practical inconvenience; on the contrary, he felt convinced that the adoption of an opposite system in 1766 had been preceded by many and great inconveniencies. The whole argument rested on an unsound foundation. It was a principle laid down and explained by all those eminent writers who were conversant with the subject, that the population of a country not only kept pace with, but far exceeded the ratio in which its subsistence could be produced; and that it was impossible to raise subsistence as fast as the demand for it would be found to increase. It followed, therefore, that a country whose population was progressively enlarging itself, must, at some given period, be in a state that it could no longer supply food for its increasing population; consequently, if it were even wise and politic to realize the visions of some theorists, to rest only on ourselves for the supply of all our wants, to cut off all foreign commerce, and neither to buy nor sell, could such a system be adopted in all other commodities, still he contended that it could not be done in respect to corn without the greatest danger, because, for the reasons he had slated, every country must, at some time or other, depend upon foreign countries for a proportion of its food, or suffer the most aggravated miseries. Those aggravated miseries, he feared, would be the certain effect of the present measure: that was his solemn and sincere opinion; and could he, therefore, adduce a stronger reason for giving to it his most decided opposition?
No necessity for legislating at the present moment had been shewn by any of the supporters of the measure: it was a mere speculation and nothing else: they were called upon by no immediate urgency; but, in opposition to all true theory, a new and uncertain one was to be adopted without even an attempt to shew why the general operation of free and unrestricted commerce would not 196 apply to the trade in grain as well as to other commodities. For the sake of argument, however, he would suppose that a good and sufficient motive had been established for permanent legislation; a motive founded, not upon present interests, not upon present distresses, not upon partial protection to any distinct class of individuals, for all those grounds had been disclaimed by the noble earl, but upon the ground of a fixed policy; though surely at a moment like this, when all our foreign relations were unsettled, and when every thing was in a state of uncertainty, it was most inexpedient and unwise to adopt a system of permanent legislation. He would ask their lordships, then, what was the proposed object of the Bill? It was to produce a regular, an adequate, and a permanent supply of food. How was it intended to accomplish that end? By making food, in the first instance, dearer than what it would be without the operation of the Bill, in order, at some future and undefined time, to make it cheaper. When that period would arrive in which the effect of the Bill was to make corn cheap, he knew not; but he was quite sure that the immediate operation would be such as he had described, and not only its immediate but its future operation. It could not, by possibility, have any other. The measure might become inoperative; but while it continued to operate at all, its certain effect must be to raise the price of grain. At the same time he was anxious to remove a misapprehension into which the noble earl had fallen respecting his (lord Grenville's) opinion as to the protecting price of 80s. He never had stated that that price must be the minimum at which corn would be sold in this country; but it was beyond all doubt that its price would be raised above the standard it would be at, were the present Bill not to pass. If that were denied, he would then ask, what other operation it could have, or was it intended to have? What was its meaning? It enacted that foreign corn should not be imported into this country till the home corn had arrived at a certain price. By what ingenuity of argument it could be shewn that its effect would not be to enhance the price, he was utterly at a loss to comprehend. If it would not do that, what would it do? If it affected the price at all, it must operate either upon the demand or supply. Would it lessen the demand? It could only do so by raising the price. Would it increase 197 the supply? Certainly not; for it would cut off one source of present supply without adding any other adequate to our increasing wants.
He was aware of the general argument which might here be urged, that as the ultimate effect of the Bill would be to encourage and give a stimulus to our own agriculture, we should, hereafter, grow an independent and ample supply, which would secure a steady and moderate price; but, in order to give that encouragement, they were beginning by raising it above its natural level. Nothing else was intended by the measure. What might be its future operation he could not undertake to say; but it was now brought forward for the avowed object of preventing corn from falling back to that price which it would bear if no restrictions upon foreign importation were imposed. Another purpose, contemplated by the supporters of the Bill, was to afford encouragement to the agriculture of Ireland; but that encouragement could be extended to Ireland only, by securing her from the foreigner who could sell his corn cheaper. In that way, also, the price would be raised; for how it could be possible to shut the market against him who would sell cheaper, and open it to him who would sell dearer, without raising the price of the commodity, might be comprehensible to the ingenuity of some, but for himself he confessed he was too dull to understand it. How was the cultivator to be protected by this measure? The land at present in cultivation was not sufficient to grow an adequate supply of grain; and how could it be made sufficient, but by bringing that soil into cultivation which was not now under the plough, because the actual price of corn would not repay the capital and skill that must be employed upon it? The whole price of corn would thus be raised, by throwing into the market that which had been grown upon those inferior lands at an increased expense. Nor could that effect be considered as at all surprising, as it was nothing more than the ordinary consequence of a restraint upon importation, which always caused the price of the commodity so restrained to rise above its natural level.
With respect to the object of the Bill in its future operations, he regretted that no intimation had been held out, by any of the supporters of it, as to the period at which it would begin to produce its advantageous results: its immediate disad- 198 vantages were obvious; but how long those disadvantages were expected to last, they had not been told. He thought the assertion quite too vague to satisfy their lordships, that the country was capable of growing corn sufficient for its consumption, because the assertion of that capacity did not state whether it referred to the present amount of our population or to our probable increase. In what ratio to our population, therefore, he would ask, was this capacity of production conceived to exist, or what amount of capital should be employed to render that capacity effective? When this capacity was asserted, he thought it should be also shewn what sacrifice of national wealth would be necessary to render our produce of corn adequate to the wants of our population. For it was a very material question to consider, whether, in order so to extend our agriculture, capital might not be withdrawn from other objects in which it was likely to be more providently employed for the benefit of the nation. For instance, it would be most preposterous to hold out an inducement to capitalists to abandon pursuits yielding a profit to the country, in order to embark in the culture of lands incapable of producing corn without considerable expense, because the amount of such expense could never be fairly drawn from the consumer by a price which corn could reasonably bear. The idea, indeed, of providing adequate remuneration for such agriculturists at the expense of the public, would be quite as unreasonable as an attempt to render this a wine country by excluding the import of that article, and by thus rendering us independent of foreign supply.
But to enable the House to decide upon the subject of an adequate growth of corn for our supply, a further investigation was indispensably necessary; for the report of the committee, and the evidence taken before it, had by no means furnished sufficient materials. Yet with this insufficiency of materials and information it was proposed to legislate for a considerable period. It was, indeed, proposed to fix the price of corn at such a rate as to provide a permanent encouragement for the farmer; but how was this encouragement to be secured? By preventing importation, it was calculated that the farmers would be induced to grow enough of corn for the consumption of the country; but in order to do so in an average of seasons, they must grow too much in a plea- 199 tiful season; and how were they to dispose of the surplus? Where was that country in which corn was to be made dear by law, to dispose of its surplus produce? That surplus could not, in fact, find a market in any other country, and therefore must remain on the hands of our farmers. Thus the object of this Bill was likely to be defeated, and the farmers become more distressed than they probably were at present. Thus the farmers would be rendered unable to sell cheaper, while they would be also rendered unable to export, through the operation of this measure, for forcing an increased price of corn.
But the fallacy of the arguments, or rather the assertions, adduced in support of this measure, was in no case more glaring than in that which referred to the danger of our dependence upon foreign supply. That such apprehension was utterly groundless was quite evident, from the experience of the last twenty years, when the general state of the country, and especially the improvement of our agriculture, afforded the most conclusive answer to those who professed to entertain the apprehension of such a dependence. He not only deprecated this apprehension as quite visionary, but some observations connected with it, which he deemed illiberal; for he protested against the language used to excite a prejudice with regard to what was improperly called our "natural enemy," because he saw no reason why we should not be as ready to open a just and liberal intercourse with France as with any other nation. But further, as to the idea of dependence upon France: it has been stated by the noble earl, that the price of corn in France was 47s. a quarter, and that its export was prohibited when it arrived at 49s. Now, if this country were so dependent upon France, how came it that our demand had not been such as to raise the price from 47s. to 49s.? But the fact was, that our import from France was insignificant, not exceeding 145,000 quarters, while our national consumption was from 13 to 15 million quarters. How, then, could it be rational to entertain any fear of our dependence for supply upon what was called our natural enemy? The idea of such dependence was, in fact, quite nugatory. We had, indeed, usually a much larger supply from Poland and Holland; but was it therefore to be inferred that we were dependent upon either of these countries? They were 200 entirely ignorant of the principles of commerce who could entertain such a notion, for it might be as well said that those countries were dependent upon us. But every commercial transaction was an exchange of equivalents, in which both parties were equally interested. It could not be pretended that we were dependent upon Russia because this country afforded the principal market for her produce. On the contrary, Russia was by that circumstance so dependent upon us that this dependence notoriously occasioned that effort on the part of Russia which had led (God grant that it might lead !) to the deliverance of Europe. The fact was, that the interest which the Russian landholders felt in their commercial intercourse with this country, was the great cause of the restoration of the pacific relations of Russia; and why should not the landed interest of France feel equally well disposed towards this country, if our market were opened to their produce through a free trade in corn. Such a circumstance must indeed serve to excite a strong interest in France in the maintenance of peace with this country. But could it be supposed, that because France would thus feel an interest in selling her produce to us, we should therefore become dependent upon her? The idea was absurd, quite as absurd, indeed, as the wild maxim prevailing among some politicians on the continent, that we were dependent upon those nations to whom we sold our manufactures; the buyers in such cases being just as dependent as the sellers. Yet from this absurd measure it was often assumed that this, the most independent nation in the world, was dependent upon its customers, who were its customers only to supply their own wants. But if it were maintained that we were dependent because we brought from other countries, then we must contrive to supply all our wants at home, in order to guard against the imaginary danger of dependence. This supply was, however, impossible. Some of our most essential articles must be had from other countries—naval stores, for instance. But this apprehension of dependence upon other nations, because we purchased from them, was quite a new notion. We must, in fact, buy, or we could not sell; we must export, or we could not import. And here he took occasion to observe, that the old maxim, that the balance of exports over imports constituted the wealth of a country, was 201 quite fallacious; that wealth being, in fact, created by the profit arising out of the exchange of those articles which one country could produce cheaper than another, and which, exchange must of course, be mutually beneficial. But if this country endeavoured to supply herself with corn and manufactures, she must possess a double capital, enough to supply the loom and the plough, or one or the other must be neglected. Now, the question was, whether it would be wise on our part to abandon or to hazard the loom, which was found so productive of national wealth, in the speculation of becoming a great agricultural country. The country had been hitherto found incompetent to grow sufficient corn for its consumption; and the question was, whether by pursuing our prosperous system of manufacture, we should not be able, through the disposal of that manufacture abroad, to procure corn considerably cheaper than we could possibly grow it at home.
Adverting to the petition from the city of London, the noble lord forcibly pressed the necessity of inquiry upon the important point referred to in that petition, namely, as to the influence which this Bill was likely to have upon the price of bread. He asked their lordships, whether they could reconcile to their sense of justice, to decide upon the merits of this measure without hearing both sides? And it was to be recollected, that as yet only one side had been heard, no evidence whatever having been adduced on the part of the manufacturers and the other petitioners against the Bill. In his opinion, the tendency of this Bill would be to raise the price of bread above its natural level; and considering the influence of the price of provisions upon the price of labour, he conjured their lordships maturely to inquire and deliberate, before they determined upon such a question. The consequences to our national wealth from any considerable check to our manfactures he thought it unnecessary to dwell upon, for those consequences must be obvious to their lordships judgment; but he begged to impress upon their minds the serious injury likely to result from that provocative to emigration, which must arise out of any enhancement of the price of provisions, especially combined with the known pressure of our taxes. Indeed, it was a lamentable fact, that numbers even of the higher order of our gentry had already felt it advisable to seek in other countries 202 those conveniencies, which, from our peculiar circumstances, their means could not reach at home. If the Bill passed, there was no labourer who had a family of three children, who would not be obliged to apply for parochial relief: the manufacturers would be reduced to this resource, which was at present but too generally resorted to by the agriculturist; and even the artificer, if the reward of his toil did not increase in the same proportion as the price of bread, would be reduced to the same painful resource. The noble baron concluded by observing, that he had studiously avoided every thing which might be construed into an imputation of improper motives to the supporters of the measure, and by thanking the House for the attention with which he had been heard.
The Earl of Lauderdale
said, there was not one thing which the noble lord who had just sat down had offered to the House, which he had not anticipated. The noble lord had throughout argued upon a false view of the present situation of the country, as well as upon a false view of the measure on which they were that day proceeding. This measure had for its object not only a system by which the price of grain would be diminished, and by which the country would hereafter be secured that article at a fair and moderate rate, but it had in view the relief of the agriculturist from the distress under which he at present laboured. He said he had given his mind as much to this subject as any man—he had considered it in all its bearings; and the result of his deliberations was, that so far from being injurious to the community, it would prove in the highest degree beneficial. With respect to the argument urged, of a high price of provisions being injurious to the manufacturers, he could only say, that the evidence of those individuals went directly to refute it. When those individuals were examined three years ago upon the question of the orders in council, he had distinctly asked them whether their distresses were not attributable to the high price of provisions? And their answer was, that they never experienced any inconvenience from the high price of provisions, provided trade was brisk. And the fact was, that the extra employment which was given to the labourers by this briskness, amply compensated for any increased price of provisions. The Bill, he observed, was 203 no new measure; it was only rendering effectual the old laws, which had been enacted for the protection of our farmers, and which had formed the system of this country ever since the reign of Edward 3, who had prohibited importation when wheat was below 6s. the quarter. Far from burthening the manufacturer, it would relieve him by relieving the farmer; for from the prosperity of the farmer, the labourer would be employed, the shopkeeper would thrive, and would create a demand—the most material and safest demand on the manufacturer for his commodities. The supply of grain from foreign countries was very small in proportion to that from our own soil. The whole quantity of grain consumed in Great Britain was estimated at 40 million of quarters, of which only 1,200,000 on an average were imported. To produce a cheap supply, would it not be wiser to encourage the producers of the greater quantity than those who supplied the lesser quantity? The price of 80s. would be a maximum; for if the price rose above that sum for six weeks, there would be a most abundant importation from the opposite side of the Channel. It was a great mistake to proceed on the supposition that the trade in grain was free, while there were so many taxes which pressed on our agriculturists. If the importation were open, there would be a bounty on foreign growers to import into our markets. Five million of quarters might in that case be imported. Such a state of things laid our subsistence at the mercy of foreign powers, and they might raise a navy against us by limiting the trade to their own ships. If our manufactures were to be destroyed by high prices, foreign states might, in such a state of things, put an end to them at once by stopping importation. On the other hand, they had experience that encouragement would produce low prices—as, for instance, in the cotton trade, the iron trade, and even in the trade of grain itself, the price of which, under a system of efficient protection, and with a bounty on exportation, had continued to full for a whole century. It was chimerical to suppose that the farmers could combine to raise the price of corn, when they could not combine in any one thing. The consequence of a free importation would be, that in abundant years the market would be overstocked with foreign corn—in scarce years foreign nations, for their own preservation, would 204 be obliged to hold back their supply. The small quantity which we now imported, might be very well supplied by our own farmers. Capital was not wanting, nor was the capital required to produce 1,200,000 quarters, in addition to the present quantity, great. All that was required was security; for the farmers would not employ their capital without that security being afforded to their occupation, which was given to all other lines in which capital was employed.—The noble earl then contended, that the lowering of rents would be attended with a comparatively trifling reduction in the price of grain. It had been argued, that from the reduction of taxes, a corresponding reduction ought to take place in the price of agricultural produce; but in the present state of the revenue of this country, and the way in which it was managed, no man could say what our taxation would be, and that it would not press heavier than it had done on the agriculture of the country. He had argued throughout, that the measure ought to be adopted as one which was beneficial to the consumer. There was not one of the general principles contended for by the noble lord (Grenville), that he was not deeper pledged to than most men; but it was necessary to look at the real situation of the country at this time, in measuring the application of these general principles. He was careless of present popularity—he looked alone to the welfare of the country; and he knew that when they came to feel the beneficial effects of this measure, the people of this country would not be deficient in gratitude to their real benefactors.
The Earl of Selkirk
contended, that how ever desirable it might be that a free trade should universally exist, it was well known that no state acted upon this principle; and while we were most in want of a supply of food from other countries, we might open our ports in vain for it. He entered at some length into the connexion between the price of food and the wages of labour, and contended that the present measure would have the most beneficial effect, in so far as concerned the labouring classes. He argued also, that a regular supply of food, at an equal price, was greatly preferable to the sudden rises and depressions of price which would follow from such an extensive country as. Great Britain being in any way dependent on foreign countries for any considerable part of her food.
§ The House then divided on the question for the second reading: Contents, 92; Proxies, 52 144; Not-Contents, 15; Proxies, 2, 17: Majority, 127.
§ The Bill was then read a second time and committed for Friday.
|List of the Minority.|