HL Deb 02 April 1840 vol 53 cc398-404
The Duke of Buckingham

, after presenting a number of petitions from Cornwall against any alteration in the existing Corn-laws, said, he would take the opportunity of expressing his regret at having seen what he had said respecting the payment of the labourer, misstated in a morning paper. It was stated there, that he said he thought the labourer was well paid at 9s. a week. That was not his opinion, and he had never so stated it. The more the labourer could get, the better satisfied he should be. He only hoped and trusted the Corn-laws would never be repealed, for if they were, the wages of the labourer would be reduced to a very small pittance.

The Marquess of Westminster

said, the petitions which had been presented in favour of the Corn-laws, were many of them not very numerously signed, and a great many came under suspicious circumstances, as coming from the same parts of the country, the petition he had to present was of a different sort—it represented the opinions of a large community of Liverpool. If their Lordships had attended to the representations that had been given, they must be aware that great distress prevailed in the manufacturing districts. It was clearly predicted in 1815, by the noble Lord opposite (Ashburton), that such would be the result, and he was sorry to observe that the noble Lord had changed his correct opinions after his prophecies had been fulfilled. In 1828, the noble Lord (then Mr. Baring) said, that such a law would drive our manufacturers into foreign countries, and cause much distress at borne. He regretted that the noble Lord had now changed his opinions.

Lord Ashburton

said, that if the noble Marquess had made a motion on the subject of the Corn-laws, he should have been very glad to discuss the question with him. The noble Marquess, however, had been pleased to talk of him (Lord Ashburton)as a "sentinel," and the noble Marquess took care, that from day to day he should keep that sentinel on the qui vive. The House would therefore excuse him if he offered a few words in reference to his alleged change of opinion. In 1825 he had certainly taken a strong part in the House of Commons in a proposition which was then made for augmenting what was called the protecting duties on corn. He might have used on that occasion expressions strongly indicative of his apprehension of over-stretching such protection, and he should observe that the fashion of the House of Commons, at that time, was to go into extremes on such subjects. The question, however, at that time was not a repeal, but an increase on the protecting duty of from 66s. to 80s. Many Gentlemen in the House of Commons even thought that 80s. was not sufficient, and especially Sir Henry Parnell, who expressed as his opinion that 125s. would be a fair protecting duty. Sir Henry Parnell, however, he believed, was now in favour of an alteration in the existing laws. If he had also changed his opinion on the subject, it would not be the first time that he had done so on subjects of greater importance, and he should not have the slightest hesitation in admitting such change in the House. If at any time he had thought that the protecting duty which had been established was working ill for the great interests of the country, he should be the first to express such an opinion. He should be certainly sorry to see an extreme protection on corn—he should be sorry to see that protection raised beyond what it was at present. If there had been a proposition to take into consideration any particular scale of duty, he would not say that he should be unwilling to enter on the consideration of that subject, but he was not willing to enter on the consideration of it with persons who were totally hostile to the protection of our agriculture. When the question came regularly under consideration he would state his reasons for maintaining the system as it existed, and for thinking that it had worked well, even for the manufacturers, who were represented as so much injured by it. The noble Marquess opposite had great objections to fluctuations in prices, and the noble Marquess spoke of that as one of the greatest evils of the Corn-laws. But it was proved by a paper which had lately been laid before the House of Commons that, from 1815 to 1838, the fluctuations in Prussia, Poland, Westphalia, Sweden, Bordeaux, Riga, and Trieste, had been double the extent of those in England during the same years. He would now only apologise to the House for having so long detained them.

The Earl of Radnor

said, that when an individual of the eminence of the noble Lord gave expression to such a variety of opinions—to such unaccountable alterations of opinion—it was no wonder that he should be kept a little on the qui vive. The noble Lord said, that he thought the existing laws had worked well, and he said also, that he should have no objection to canvass the question, if some proposition were brought forward by parties who were not hostile to all protection to agriculture. If the noble Lord thought that the Corn-laws had worked well, what was the necessity for canvassing them? But the noble Lord had previously entertained very different opinions on this important question. In 1815 he had delivered a speech which contained the expression of opinions entirely opposed to those which were now advocated both by him and by the whole body of the supporters of the present Corn-laws. One of the principles laid down in that speech was contained in the following sentence:—" No Government ever went on so absurd a principle as to force an independent supply." Now, in the course of the remarks made by the noble Duke (Richmond) the other night, in which he attempted to inflict a severe castigation upon him, he had expressly stated, that that was the very thing the advocates of the Corn-law wanted. Other opinions expressed by the noble Lord (Ashburton) in 1815 were directly opposed to the opinions which he now held. In 1828, also, the noble Lord had expressed himself very strongly opposed to protection. He then said, "that he could not think how it was possible that any reasonable man could talk about protection to corn, wool, and other articles, when the difference in the price of bread between this and other countries varied from 25s. to 64s." He also said, that the experience of Holland ought to have given a lesson to this country. But now the noble Lord entertained very different opinions and talked in a very different manner. He was in the constant habit of receiving letters which detailed to him the lamentable distress which prevailed in the manufacturing districts. The accounts of such distress, he was sure, would harass the minds of their Lordships. A small tradesman of Manchester, who frequently communicated to him on the subject, and whose letters, though their writer was entirely a self-taught man, were very interesting, told him plainly the state of things which then prevailed. This man, in one of such letters, had said, "The newspapers will tell me that things are getting better; I will tell you that they are getting worse." He also stated facts which spoke for themselves. He told him that "machine-makers were beginning to work half-work," and also, "that lately in this town a large manufacturer had dismissed 250 men." The noble Lord (Ashburton) had formerly stated, that the principles which he then supported were founded on reason and experience, and he then predicted a state of things which have since come to pass; and, having done so, how could he now get up and say those arguments were fallacious, and that on the whole the present Corn-laws had worked well? Let them look to the accounts from the manufacturing districts, and let them see how the present system had worked, and then say whether it had worked well. He would say one word respecting a paper which had been put into his hand since he had entered the House. It was a paper which demanded a good deal of inquiry and consideration; but he thought that even at first sight, he was able to answer the arguments which might be deduced from the facts which it unfolded. From this paper it appeared that there was only one country in which the variations of price were less than in this country. He would tell their Lordships that the variations of price, even in other countries, were owing to our system of Corn-laws. It was not to be supposed that their effect was only felt in England. Every country with which they carried on commercial intercourse—every nation having a commercial connexion with ourselves, suffered from their injurious effects. The majority of these countries, too, in which there was so great a fluctuation of prices, were exporting countries. The only country in which the variation was less was a country which never thought of exporting at all, and that country was Sweden. It was evident—and this fact was in a great measure attributable to our present fluctuating Corn-laws—the more a country exported, the greater were the variations in its prices. He thought that he had explained the grounds why this country was not so fluctuating in its prices as others, and he felt assured that no argument in favour of the present Corn-laws could be drawn from that fact.

Lord Ashburton

was sorry to detain the House on any matter personal to himself, and regretted that any opinions which he might have delivered years ago should occupy their Lordships' attention; but as a serious charge of inconsistency had been brought against him, he felt bound, in justice to himself, in justice to his own opinions, and injustice to their Lordships, to answer, as shortly as possible, the charge then made. He, in the first place, did not hold himself answerable for the reports of the speeches which had been read by the noble Lord; but this he would confess, that he believed, that in 1815 he had used some such arguments as those referred to against any increased protection upon agriculture. He believed that on the introduction of the bill of 1815, in the House of Commons, he had then felt it to be his duty to speak and vote with the minority—a minority of about thirty to nearly 600—against what was called "over-protection." He, however, did believe that he had used such expressions as had been quoted in 1828. This, however, he would confidently say, that neither when the present law was introduced, nor at any other time—and on this point he felt quite confident—had he ever expressed any opinion adverse to the principle of protection. The noble Lord had rather misrepresented his present opinion on the Corn-laws. He never had been, nor was he at the present time, a person of extreme opinions as to protection. He looked with extreme anxiety on the question, watching, at the same time, the effects on commerce and our manufactures which protection had and was likely to produce. He was sorry to detain the House on the subject, as he did not in any measure set himself up as an authority upon it, but he had been compelled to answer the personal charge brought against him. He was quite ready to listen calmly and dispassionately to a proposal of any alteration. For his own part, be would have no objection to go into committee with the opponents of the present Corn Laws and consider the facts and arguments drawn from them which they might bring for- ward. But still he must express his opinion that the measure had, on the whole, worked well. As to the petition which had been presented by the Noble Marquess, he would say that he had habitually a great respect for petitions from the people, but that respect was in a great measure diminished on the present subject, considering the agitation which had aroused the country. Every means had been used to procure petitions and to obtain from the body of the people expressions of opinions adverse to the present system. Lecturers were sent through the country, meetings were held, the distress of the mercantile world exaggerated, and these unfair and unconstitutional means were adopted for the purpose of loading the tables of Parliament with petitions against the Corn Laws. Petitions thus obtained could not be expected to receive that consideration and to bear with them that weight to which they would be otherwise entitled. The commercial distress which existed might in a great measure arise from the derangement of the currency, but such distress had been much exaggerated. The manufactures of this country had during the last few years much increased. In 1839 the exports had increased to the amount of two millions; and the cotton manufactures, which were represented to have suffered so severely, had increased a million in the course of a year. The facts, therefore, failed his Noble Friend, and with him, all the opponents of the Corn Laws. Looking also at the steadiness of prices in this compared with other countries, it was impossible to say that the system had not worked well. The paper referred to by the noble Lord, which had been produced, not by an agriculturist, but by those entirely opposed to all protection, clearly established this. He felt called upon again to express his regret at having thus detained their Lordships, and in conclusion moved for some returns showing the average prices of wheat, oats, and barley in this and other countries, and for some other papers connected with the subject, the details of which did not reach us.

The Earl of Haddington

said their Lordships need not fear that he should prolong this discussion. The great importance of this question was-a reason why it ought not to be discussed in this desultory manner. It was unfair to the question itself, and inconvenient to the House, to pursue the present course. If any noble Lord thought it desirable that a formal discussion upon the corn laws should take place, why not give notice of a resolution, or adopt some other mode of bringing the subject regularly before their Lordships for debate? No doubt the natural course would be, supposing that there was any expectation of a bill on the subject coming up from the other House, to wait for that bill; but, in the non-arrival of such a bill, he saw no reason why their Lordships should not discuss a question of major importance like this. He must, however, protest against the present mode of discussing it, because he perceived that night after night great inconvenience was occasioned by it, and that noble Lords could not in this way do justice either to themselves or to their opponents. The noble Marquess opposite, on a former night, read a speech to convince his noble Friend that he was guilty of some inconsistency in his opinions, and that night he had read a great deal out of a newspaper 25 years old—[The Marquess of Westminster. A newspaper of 1828.]—He begged the noble Marquess's pardon, the paper was only 12 years old. But no sooner did his noble Friend state what his opinions were now, and the different situation of matters now, than up got his other noble Friend (the Earl of Radnor,) and proceeded to read a long debate on the corn laws, from a newspaper printed a quarter of a century ago, in order that his noble Friend, whose opinions were of the greatest importance on this as well as on other subjects, might be convinced that he has altered his opinions. If there had been any change or opinion on the part of the noble Baron on this subject, he thought the great weight and support of his authority should hardly have led the noble Earl to believe that change or modification could have been lightly made. A noble Earl, who had sat some years ago for the borough of Downton, then voted against Parliamentary reform, but afterwards in that House he was an eager supporter of that measure. He was not aware that the noble Earl was or ought to be attacked on that ground, but it might serve as an answer to his attacks on others for changing their opinions.

Petition laid on the table.

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