HL Deb 15 May 1835 vol 27 cc1125-8
Lord Brougham

presented a Petition from the Common Council of the City of London on the subject of the Abolition of the Taxes on knowledge. The Common Council had not the privilege with respect to this House which they possessed with regard to the Commons House of Parliament, of presenting their petition at the bar of the House, but it must be presented by a member of their Lordships' House. In order, however, to give due effect to their petition, they came down to the humble individual who then addressed their Lordships in the dignity of their office, and gave him the petition, desiring him respectfully to request for it their Lordships' most careful attention. The petition was not confined to the abolition of newspaper stamps, but to the taxes upon paper and books, and to what they represented to be taxes upon knowledge of all descriptions, political, civil, and scientific. They objected to a tax of 200 per cent, on the raw material, which they said must have the effect of preventing the dissemination of knowledge, and keeping instruction from the various classes of the people, when it was most important to the cause of good Government that that instruction should be furnished to all classes of the community. The stability and value of our institutions depended in a great measure on the instruction thus kept back from a large portion of the people. In the first place, with respect to newspapers, the effect, of the stamp was to give to ribaldry, to sedition, and to blasphemy, a monopoly of sale: for papers thus badly distinguished were published at one penny, while the more respectable papers were published at a higher price. The trials and executions of criminals were as nothing for the instruction of the people compared in extensive effect to the statement of them in the newspapers, which spread the knowledge of them all over the country. The papers, however, which gave this information were burdened with a duty of 200 per cent., while those which had no such recommendation, but were filled with bad matter, and even recommended assassination, paid no stamp at all. By this system, therefore, the mischievous publications enjoyed a monopoly of the market, while the in- nocent publications were taxed 200 per cent. Incalculable injury was thus inflicted on good government, on good institutions, and on the good administration of the law. In this point, therefore, he perfectly agreed with the petitioners; and he agreed with them also in their objections to the monopoly of newspapers. In London especially, a few newspapers enjoyed a monopoly of the market. Were it not for the stamp duty, those newspapers would have competitors and rivals, whereas at present they had the monopoly of communicating intelligence and political discussion to the people. He would state to their Lordships a fact, however, to show that the evil of this monopoly was not confined to London. He had seen it stated in a provincial newspaper, that he (Lord Brougham) had, at a public meet-taken a most mischievous and improper liberty with their Lordships. He was charged with having pronounced a most exaggerated and fulsome panegyric on their Lordships. This was charged upon him in the newspaper in question as a great offence. Perhaps their Lordships might think that it admitted of some extenuation. At any rate it was on his part a rarity. Being his first offence of the kind, he trusted that their Lordships would at least mitigate his punishment. It was asked by the newspaper in question—"Was there ever anything so abominably inconsistent as this man's praising the House of Lords?" The terms of praise ascribed to him were to the following effect:—"I defy the history of all nations and of all ages to produce an example of an assembly so august, so eminent for talents and learning, so renowned for its great public services, so truly a representative of the interests and feelings of the people, so faithful a guardian of popular rights, so distinguished by valuable qualities of every description, as the present House of Lords." Now of all this, as it respected their Lordships, he had not said one word.—He had said, what some might consider worse than either panegyric or vituperation—he had said nothing whatever about their Lordships. Having spoken of the House of Commons, the newspaper in question attacked him by ascribing to him a fulsome panegyric on their Lordships, which he should never have dreamt of uttering, belonging as he himself did to the House of Lords. But not belonging to the House of Com- mons, he had certainly panegyrized that House, although not in terms so strong as those imputed to him. The use of the word "present" clearly proved that "the House of Lords" was an interpolation on the part of the newspaper; for that word would be an absurd one to use towards their Lordships, although it would be just as applied to the House of Commons. When he had read this unfounded statement, he asked a friend, who knew the town in which the newspaper was published, how it was possible that such a paper could go on. The answer was, that it was the only newspaper in the town—that three or four attempts had been made to establish a competition; but that all those attempts had been stifled by the newspaper stamp. It was always so in cases of monopoly; those by whom that monopoly was possessed did that which they would not dare to do if they had rivals in the field. He cordially concurred, therefore, in that part of the petition which related to newspaper stamps. The petitioners also prayed for the remission of the duty on paper and on foreign books. With respect to the first, it unquestionably operated with great severity on what were known by the name of cheap publications. He could state on his own personal knowledge, that some of the most useful publications of that kind in the present day were in danger of being given up, because the tax upon paper just made the difference between their being able, and their not being able, to go on. The publications emanating from the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and other publications in imitation of them, were in that predicament. They could now go on with difficulty, but they could go on with ease if only half the duty on paper were taken off. He was persuaded that if that were done, the revenue would gain more than it would lose by the remission; just as it would by taking off the stamps on newspapers. As to the prayer of the petitioners for taking off the duty on foreign books, their Lordships would, probably, not be disposed to agree to that to its full extent, as it would deprive the home trade of the protection which ought to be afforded to it. At the same time, to continue a tax on such foreign books as could not, by possibility, be printed in this country, was certainly one of the most barbarous regulations conceivable. He had himself that morning paid a duty of 25l. on the importation of foreign books. When he was last in Paris, he had purchased a complete series of "The Memoirs of the French Academy" at different eras, comprehending between two and three hundred volumes—a work not to be found in any of our public libraries. In addition to the purchase-money, he had that morning paid five-and-twenty pounds duty on the importation of those volumes. Now, what protection could such a duty as that be to the home-trade? Could it be supposed that an English publisher would print two hundred and fifty-two volumes of "The Memoirs of the French Academy?" The real evil was in the introduction of French editions of such works as those of Lord Byron or Sir Walter Scott. The duty, however, was almost inoperative in preventing the surreptitious introduction of such works. Thus the bad and injurious publications succeeded in finding their way into this country; the good ones were stopped. The large publications, which had no competitors in this country, were prevented from coming; the small publications came over, and entered into competition with the legitimate works. Without going at greater length into the subject, he begged leave to present the petition.

Petition to lie on the Table.