§ The Earl of Clarendon
said, it was his duty to call the attention of the House to a petition which was similar to one presented by a noble Lord opposite just now (the Earl of Galloway), in praying for such an alteration in the law as would remove the evils of the present system, and afford a just protection to the agricultural class. It could not be said, that this petition emanated from persons connected with the Chartists or influenced by hard agitators, as had been said of all such petitions on a former evening, by the noble Duke on the cross bench, (the Duke of Richmond.) It was signed by 1,500 persons and upwards, connected with the trade of Liverpool, and representing a capital of thirty millions sterling. No exertion had been made to procure the signatures. No party or personal influence was used, the persons who signed it were of various opinions in politics. Many of them were Conservatives. It was not only in the number and respectability of the signatures that the petition was worthy of attention, but also for its character. The petitioners did not call for a total repeal of the Corn-laws, on the contrary, he desired to have it known that although many of them had a desire to see the Corn-laws totally repealed, yet a greater portion of them did not wish to deprive the agriculturist of a fair protection. They considered the present system injurious to the commerce and industry of the country, and they thought that a fixed duty would give a just protection to the agricultural interest and prevent the uncertainty and difficulty of a supply of corn from abroad in times of emergency. They regarded the evil in a commercial point of view, and connected it with the distress which now prevailed, and which, no doubt, their Lordships regretted as much as any one 222 in the country. The petitioners did not complain of the high rate of wages, nor hold out any expectation that the change would enable them better to contend with their continental rivals by lowering the price of food, but that the existing system rendered the supply of foreign corn uncertain, and produced this effect, that when the high price of corn in this country rendered the importation admissible, and necessary, foreign produce could only be paid for in bullion. The consequence was as happened last year, the Bank contracted their issues, and the manufacturers were obliged to suspend their operations. Distress and confusion followed. On these grounds they recommended some alteration, with a due regard to the rights of the agriculturists.
§ The Duke of Richmond
had not said that every petition that was presented was got up by paid agitators. The noble Earl had spoken of the great wealth of the petitioners. He should like to know how they got their wealth, and whether it were not by the protection afforded to the agriculturists. He deprecated setting the agricultural against the manufacturing interests, believing them to be one and the same. The scheme of a fixed duty was one of the wildest ever conceived. He should like to know what Government could dare to execute it. Really, these gentlemen of Liverpool talked so much with one another on the subject, they would give no credit to the opinion of any one else. The agriculturists were the best judges of their own interests. He thought the 400 or 500 petitions presented to-day in favour of the Corn-laws were worth more than that of the noble Earl's. He hoped the farmers would remember the exertions made to agitate the country, and would combine to send petitions to Parliament. If he knew the Scotch farmers, when they heard of these things, they would lose no time in doing so. He looked with the greatest confidence to the House of Commons doing their duty, and saving their Lordships any discussion this year on the subject.
§ Lord Ashburton
asked the noble Earl whether he had spoken his own opinions, or those merely of the petitioners. [The Earl of Clarendon gave no opinion of his own.] When the noble Earl stated these petitioners considered the present distress arose from the state of the Corn-laws, he asked what the prosperity of the last year, 223 and the year before, arose from, for then it was admitted there was great prosperity, and that was under the present Corn-laws, and, therefore, if the Corn-laws were assailed because of the present manufacturing distress they should have credit given to them for past prosperity. As to the fluctuation of the currency it was not occasioned by the Corn-laws, for that would fluctuate whether there was any duty or not, and nothing could prevent the vicissitudes which depend on the seasons and a variety of causes. He further maintained, and was ready to prove, this country had suffered, and was suffering less, both from the fluctuation of grain and the price of food at the present moment, than from other causes. A permanent duly seemed to him only calculated to bring corn in when we did not want it, and not to assist us in times of distress when we did.
The Earl of Radnor
was in favour of no duty at all. He wished to allude to a misapprehension on the part of his noble Friend who had just sat down. His noble Friend had said, that we were now suffering great distress, and that that was attributed to the Corn-laws, but that when the country prospered some years ago, that prosperity should equally be attributed to the same laws. His noble Friend had, however, forgotten, that in the years in question, the Corn-laws were not in operation, and that they were, in fact, a dead letter, for home corn was then in abundance.
§ Lord Ashburton
begged leave to set himself right with his noble Friend. What he had stated was, that in all countries there must be vicissitudes of prosperity and adversity. His hon. Friend had said that the supplies of corn had been abundant in this country up to a late period. That, however, could only prove the value of the present Corn-laws, as it showed that, under ordinary circumstances, those Jaws encourage the growth of home corn. He believed that any change in the present system would injure, above all, our industrious artisans.
§ Petition laid on the table.