HL Deb 08 February 1839 vol 45 cc184-90
Lord Brougham

rose to present a petition of very great importance; and it was the first which had issued from the body from which it came; it was a petition from the new municipality of. Birmingham—was signed by the Mayor on behalf of the Corporation, It was upon the subject of the Corn-laws, and prayed for a speedy and effectual relief from the pressure of those laws. He wished to state, that he believed some worthy and respected individuals were anxious for something, which according to his recollection of what had formerly taken place in the House of Commons, if the orders of both Houses were the same in this respect—he believed was not according to precedent, namely, to be heard by counsel and evidence at tale Bar against the Corn-laws. Now, he was afraid—he wished it were otherwise—that there was no instance of counsel being heard against a law which had actually passed, though they had been heard against a bill while pending before Parliament. He believed, however, that there was this exception, that counsel might be heard against a tax the year after it had been imposed, The petition which he had presented, did not pray to be heard by counsel. He would now give notice that on Friday—although from the unavoidable absence of some noble Friends, he might be induced to postpone it till Monday, he would bring forward a motion on this subject, which motion would be, "That evidence be allowed to be produced at the bar against the Corn-laws, not by counsel and parties, but evidence in the regular mode for the satisfaction of their Lordships." This, he believed, would be in accordance with the precedent of the Orders in Council. He thought their Lordships would consider that, upon this important subject, the sooner the attention of Parliament was called to it the better.

The Earl of Ripon

could not allow the first opportunity that offered, to pass without asking the indulgence, of their Lordships while he attempted to set himself right with the House, and defend himself from what he considered an imputation. It was, with respect to a subject which agitated the public mind—he meant the Corn-laws. He always understood, that the present Cabinet had been formed upon the principles with respect to those laws laid down by the noble Viscount in the debate upon the Address. With respect to that he knew nothing. He had since, however, seen it stated, that a very high authority had said, that Lord Grey's Administration had been formed upon the same principles; and that the Corn-laws was considered an open question with that Cabinet. He did not say that high authority had said so, but that it had been so stated. Whether it was said or not, he felt himself bound to state, that, while he had the honour of belonging to that cabinet, there existed no such understanding. It was utterly impossible for him to suppose that Lord Grey's Government was formed upon such principles, because, in 1833, when a noble Friend of his brought forward the question, Lord Grey asked him to oppose the motion, and to prepare himself to answer the observations of his noble Friend, and he did so because it was the duty of those who administered the Government of the country, to take the earliest opportunity of giving a direct and unequivocal statement of their sentiments upon a subject of such great importance. Upon his honour, if he had the slightest suspicion, that there was any doubt whatever as to the principles upon which that Government was formed with respect to the Corn-laws, he never would have made such a speech; for he certainly at that time considered that he spoke the sentiments of the Government, and as a Government, and if he had made such a speech as he did upon that occasion, while there was even a doubt as to the principles of the Government, he should have degraded himself and the House, and abused the confidence of the public. He knew, that, as in all Cabinets, there was a difference of opinion upon many subjects, and amongst others, upon the Corn-laws, but he solemnly declared; that he knew not, that upon that question they would not act as a Cabinet—a combined Cabinet upon the question of the Corn-laws, and according to the speech he then made. He felt it, due to himself—he felt it due to Lord Grey, and he also felt it, due to those not now belonging to the Cabinet—and he called upon them to support him in the assertion—to give a flat denial to that which was reported to, have fallen from one high in office in the present Government.

Earl Fitzwilliam

did not rise to answer any accusation against himself, for every one knew, that upon that subject there was no accusation to be brought against him. The question he believed was not whether Lord Grey's Government was formed on the principle of the Corn-laws being an open question, but whether that formed the principle of her Majesty's present Administration. With respect to the opinions of Lord Grey's Government, there could be no doubt of the opinions of that Government as proved by the conduct of the Government on that subject. He begged to state, that fie was intrusted with a great number of petitions on this important subject, which he was about to present to that House. He did not know whether his noble Friend had been judicious in fixing so early a period for the discussion of that question—he was not quite decided on that point; but he would say, that the repeal of the Corn- laws would be eventually wrung from them by the petitions of a suffering, but nevertheless a most loyal, people; suffering through the infliction of injudicious laws—he would say injudicious laws, because he thought they had been enacted in ignorance of the injuries they might produce and which they were still likely to produce. He confessed it was a matter of great regret to him to see the exaggerated statements that had been made on both sides of the question—on one side exaggerated statements of the effects of the repeal of the Corn-laws, and on the other side exaggerated statements of the evils those laws have actually produced. That these effects were mischievous—that they were dangerous to the future prosperity of the country—and that hitherto they had been found mischievous—he entertained no doubt, but he did believe, that the effect of these laws had been exaggerated by those who had felt them; and he was convinced, that the fears and apprehensions of those who resisted their repeal, were equally unfounded: Of course, on an occasion like the present, he would not enter into the arguments upon the subject. It would be out of place on the present occasion to do anything more than to express his opinion, but he believed, that when the opinions of the manufacturing classes themselves were examined into, and when their petitions were before the House, and he trusted, that their Lordships would examine them, he had every reason to believe, that their Lordships would find, that the manufacturing classes would be satisfied with much less than they were represented to claim, and perhaps did claim, in some of the petitions which had been presented to their Lordships. They all knew, that it was the common course of mankind to be in the habit of asking somewhat more than they expected, and, therefore, if these petitions went to the full length of calling upon their Lordships to abrogate all Corn-laws and put an end to every regulation, even for fiscal purposes, he apprehended they would not form a just estimate of what were the views and expectations of the reasonable and thinking portion of the petitioners. That there might be among large classes of people collected together many of sanguine temperaments and extravagant views, there was no doubt; but his conviction was, that if they acceded to the motion of which his noble and learned Friend had given notice, and entered, as he trusted they would, into the whole question, by both Houses giving the petitioners an opportunity of proving their case, he was convinced, that their Lordships would discover a satisfactory adjustment of the question, and would be able at least to meet the just expectations of the people; but if they turned a deaf ear to the petitioners, then he did not think, that it was in the power of any man to answer for what the consequences might be if it should please Providence again to afflict this country with a harvest as deficient as that which they had just passed. He trusted their Lordships would approach the question with calmness and deliberation and not foster in their minds an opinion which, upon examination, might turn out to be an unfounded prejudice, but would listen to the petitioners and allow them that opportunity they claimed of making out their case, and produce the impression they expected upon their Lordships and upon the other House of Parliament, though it might not lead to the entire repeal, but to a better adjustment of the present Corn-laws. The noble Lord concluded by presenting a petition from Pudsey, in the West Riding of Yorkshire for the repeal of the Corn-laws.

Lord Brougham

would not follow the noble Lord in the very able remarks he had made upon the subject, but after having received a rebuke from the noble Lord, he wished to speak in extenuation, although after judgment had been pronounced, for he was in the unfortunate situation of a party punished—who was allowed an opportunity of speaking afterwards in his own vindication. He was happy to think, that his noble Friend would be found with him, but he was sorry to find that there was any difference upon the subject of time, for it was only on the question of time, that judgment or discretion could be exercised. His noble Friend seemed to think, that he had not acted very judiciously, and that he had not chosen the very best time for his motion. He however had no choice; and he was now about to show, that if he had said anything in that House upon the question, for it must be observed that he never alluded to what passed elsewhere, and who ever stated otherwise stated an untruth. He alluded to what passed out of doors, which was his duty, and if any one in the other House of Par- liament, be that individual the highest authority there, said that he had done otherwise, such individual was misinformed by somebody having told him an untruth. By the votes of the other House which were public, and which were even sold, so that any person could know what they were, he observed that a notice of motion similar to the one he had given was entered on those votes, and stood for the 19th of February, and which was only a day later than that for which his motion stood. Now, his opinion, which he had stated to the Birmingham gentlemen whom he saw in November last, was, that this was the fit course to take, and he stated to them, that he should, at an early period, make this motion. And his opinion also was, that if there was any evidence to be taken—that if there was one place better than another to take that evidence in, it was that House where they were fettered by no technical rules, but acted strictly on judicial evidence. He grieved to observe, that his noble Friend had adopted a different course upon another point which was of great importance to himself. His noble Friend had taken upon himself to say, on behalf of their common clients, that it was not a total repeal his clients wanted—their Lordships were not to believe that was what they meant; they would be content with a great deal less. Whether that was discreet or not in his noble Friend he would leave to his own consideration; for his part, when he was at the Bar, he had never entered the Court, and said that his client, although he claimed 1,0001.: never dreamt of getting more than 201. He had never thought of such a thing; but he ought to set their Lordships right as to the fact. His noble Friend was totally mistaken; he had had communications, not with wild enthusiasts, or sanguine individuals, but with some of the most temperate advocates of a repeal of the Corn-laws, with whom he had discussed the matter over and over again, and with some even from this very town, that morning, who were neither enthusiastic nor immoderate in their expectations of what ought to he done for their relief; but men more likely to know their own minds—less likely to mean one thing when they said another—less likely to say they meant a partial repeal when they called for a total repeal, could not possibly be found; and if he mentioned the name of Mr. Joseph Sturge, a great corn factor for the last twenty-four years, he apprehended that those who knew that most respectable individual, would be convinced that any man more able to understand a subject to which he applied his very perspicacious mind, it would be difficult to find. Other gentlemen he might also mention highly qualified to judge of the question, with whom he had consulted. He, therefore, could not join his noble Friend in saying that the petitioners did not desire an entire abolition; and to show that this was a practical opinion of theirs, he had been furnished with a resolution which, if he had thought he should have been called upon to have entered thus fully into the subject, he should have read to their Lordships in the first instance. The resolution was unanimously agreed to yesterday by the delegates on the Corn-laws and when they came to him he told them he would have nothing to do with taking away what they called the protection of the farmer if he were not also to take away what they called the protection of the manufacturers and the shopkeepers. Upon that they came to the resolution, unanimously, to remove all restrictions on the importation of goods generally, and of putting them precisley on the same footing as they desired their Lordships to put the Corn-laws upon. He thought if anything could be, that was, a proof that their views were not limited to a partial, but to a total repeal, which in his opinion was the more safe, the more convenient, and the more judicious course.