The Duke of Rutland
presented three petitions from Leicester, against any alteration in the Corn-laws.
§ Earl Fitzwilliam
was desirous of speaking, and particularly of speaking on those petitions, because, in the first place, no person had a greater right to be heard on this subject than the noble Duke, from his knowledge of it; and the noble Duke had a still further title to their Lordships' consideration in consequence of the unvarying, sedulous, and watchful attention which he had ever paid to the interests of those with whom the noble Duke was immediately connected. That was one reason why he wished to address their Lordships at that moment. But a second reason was to be found in the expression quoted by the noble Duke as contained in one of those petitions. The expression was to this effect—that the petitioners prayed their Lordships to make no alteration in the laws which now regulate the importation of foreign corn. It was to this point that he was particularly desirous of drawing their Lordships' attention as extensive landowners, and also, of course, as legislators. He confessed, that he had heard with great astonishment the paragraph which he had just quoted. It surprised him very much, that persons, not perhaps identically the same, but standing in the same situation as the petitioners, should have, within a very few years, come before their Lordships with petitions of a completely contrary nature and description. On the occasion to which he referred, he found the owners and occupiers of land earnestly praying, that an alteration might be made in the Corn-laws. They spoke of the great distress to which they were subjected, and they besought their Lordships to take their case into immediate consideration. It was most remarkable, that the same persons who, five years ago, called on their Lordships to take their case into consideration, with a view to an alteration of the Corn-laws, should now come forward praying their Lordships to make no alteration in those laws. In 1835, it was remarkable that they required alteration, while in 1841 they loudly expressed their opposition to any alteration. The reason was, not that they disliked the law (in 1835), or that they particularly liked the law now. No, it was because they disliked the low price in 1835, and they liked the present high price. They were greatly alarmed at an average of 39s. per quarter for wheat; but they clearly saw, and wished to maintain, the advantage of an average of 70s per quarter. The great mass of the people were contented with 489 the prices of 1834, 1835, and 1836. An immense rise had since occurred, and they now came forward to complain of those high prices, which the petitioners wished to he continued. In the meantime, it was proper for their Lordships to consider what effect the duties on corn produced with reference to our foreign trade. They must admit, that the present state of the commerce of this country required their most serious consideration; hut whether the distress that existed was to be ascribed to Corn-laws alone was another question. It would be most unphilosophical to ascribe to an individual cause a state of things that might be ascribed to many causes; but when such effects were generally attributed to the Corn-laws, it would be but fair, at least, to institute an inquiry into the subject. The exports of the country presented some circumstances of a very remarkable character. It was well known, that the exportation of what were denominated our perfect manufactures (except to our own colonies) had been very much diminished, while the exportation of what might be described as our imperfect manufactures had considerably increased, these latter branches of export being afterwards perfectly manufactured by foreign states. If this were the case, as no doubt it was, it became still more the duty of their Lordships to take care that no act of theirs gave an additional impulse to the growth of those foreign manufactures. The sitution of our manufacturing population could not be contemplated without serious alarm; and, if their Lordships were not disposed to adopt the measure, with respect to the Corn-laws proposed to the House of Commons, they surely ought not to resist the appointment of a committee, to inquire into what were the real causes which produced the present state of the manufacturing population. The prosperity of the agricultural interest must necessarily depend, in a very great measure, on the prosperity of the manufacturing interest, and anything that diminished the expenditure, and consequently the enjoyments of the latter, must, without doubt, have a pernicious effect on the interests of the landed proprietors. What effect, then, did the duties on corn produce? A very curious statement had been put into his hands by a gentleman connected with a manufacturing town in Lancashire. That gentleman stated, that the workmen employed by him had expended upon agricultural in the year 1835, the sum of 12,000l., 490 while in the last year they had expended 18,000l. Now, it might be said, that in the mean time the agriculturists got the benefit of the increase of price; but was it to be expected, that the manufacturing workman could go on expending at that rate? There was a most erroneous idea prevalent, that a rise in the price of the necessaries of life would necessarily be accompanied by a rise in wages. The general and natural effect of a rise in the price of provisions, so far from leading to an increase of wages, had a contrary tendency; so much so, that in 1835 the manufacturers' wages were raised, whereas in 1840 they were diminished. A rise in the price of provisions necessarily increased the expenditure of the working classes, but it was not met on the part of the employers by a rise of wages. Taking long periods in the history of the country—centuries, for instance—no doubt, as the price of provisions gradually rose, there was also a rise in wages beyond the rate of the previous century. But this was a very different proposition from the statement that a temporary rise in the price of provisions was also accompanied by a corresponding rise in the rate of wages. On the contrary, such temporary rise in the price of provisions only tended to cramp the resources of the operative classes of society?
Does the noble Lord mean to apply his argument to the state of wages in the agricultural districts?
I did not intend to interrupt the noble Earl, but I wished to have the remark distinctly understood. I must say that it is quite contrary to all my experience.
§ Earl Fitzwilliam
was glad to hear it; but he was afraid that his remark applied as well to the agricultural, as to the manufacturing classes. When the price of corn had risen two or three years ago, there had been no rise in wages. [Oh, oh.] Well, then, if his statements were doubted why did they not appoint a committee and institute an inquiry? He certainly had known some places where wages had been raised, but he also knew many others where this had not been the case. This was a principal cause of the clamour raised against their Lordships, and the reason why he objected to the present system was, that it placed them in a position which he did not like to see them occupy. But supposing that the experience of the noble Lord ap- 491 plied to all classes and all places, and that a rise of wages followed a rise of provisions, would it enable the manufacturers of this country to meet on an equal footing foreign manufacturers in foreign markets. The increase of wages muct necessarily produce an exactly opposite effect. The foreign manufacturers had, and always would have, great advantages, but their Lordships ought not to increase their advantages by unwise legislation. It had been said, that the exports of our manufactures had increased, but, as he had already said, it was only an increase of the articles of imperfect manufacture. All woollen articles had diminished in exportation to foreign countries (though not to our own colonies, for in our colonies we had a monopoly). Of cotton and woollen yarns the exportation had increased, but when these yarns had been converted into cloths then the exportation had diminished. These were facts well worthy of their Lordships1 attention. He would not on the present occasion enter more fully into the important and complicated subject of our commercial embarrassments, or of the effects which the existing Corn-laws had produced in relation to them, but would at once conclude with calling their attention to the subject, and presenting a great number of petitions with which he had been intrusted respecting it.
§ The Earl of Ripon
assured their Lordships, that he did not intend to enter upon the discussion of the Corn-laws, which he thought too large a question to be debated incidentally; but he wished to refer to the state and condition of our export trade, which had been represented as progressively declining. The noble Earl was too philosophical to ascribe all the evils of the country to the Corn-laws, but he (Lord Ripon) thought he had both seen and heard them attributed to that source. But were the allegations about the progressive diminution of our trade consistent with the fact? He took the fact to be exactly the reverse, not only in reference to the general export trade of the country, but also in reference to those very countries which were most especially concerned in this question of the Corn-laws, He would point out one or two matters, which he trusted the noble Earl would take into consideration before this subject was again discussed. An account had been moved for by him in 1839, "of the official and declared value of all British and Irish produce and manufactures exported from the united kingdom in each of the last ten years, distinguishing the 492 exports to Russia, Prussia, Germany, and Holland, and distinguishing woollens, cottons, silks, cutlery, and hardware, from other goods; and a similar return had also been made for the last two years. In these papers the export trade was estimated in two different ways—by the official value and by the actual and declared value; and it appeared that this trade, which was stated to be in a condition of decay, was according to the official value, which measured the quantity, and therefore, to a great degree the amount of the capital employed, and to a still greater degree the amount of industry set in motion, in a state of increase. In 1829, the official value of all our exports was, 56,217,000l.; in 1830, 61,152,000l.; in 1831, 60,686,000l.; in 1832, 65,025,000l.; in 1833, 69,987,000l.; in 1834,73,835,000l.; in 1835,78,360,000l.; in 1836,85,220,000l.; in 1837,72,544,000l.; in 1838,92,459,000l.; in 1339,97,394,000l.; in 1840, 102,705,000l. The same result was exhibited if the export trade was considered with respect to the real value, though the total in figures was not so large. In 1829, the real value was 35,842,000l.; in 1830,38,271,000l.; in 1831,37,164,000l.; in 1832,36,450,000l.;in 1833,39,667,000l.; in 1834,41,649,000l.;in 1835,47,372,000l.; in 1836, 53,293,000l.; in 1837, there was a falling off, the declared value being 42,069,245l.; in 1838, it was 50,000,000l.; in 1839,53,222,000l.; in 1840,51,406,000l. This, then, showed a progressive increase in our export trade. Then, how stood the case with respect to the particular countries to which the exports went? He found that the official value of our exports to Russia, Prussia, Germany, Holland, and Belgium, had also progressively increased. During the last four years, the amount of our export trade to those countries, in official value, was as follows:—In 1837, 17,597,000l.; in 1838, 18,162,000l.; in 1839, 19,347,623l.; in 1840, 20,549,000l. Practically, then, the export trade of the country was in a state of progressive increase. The noble Earl said, that might be true, but this circumstance ought to be taken into consideration, that the increase had taken place in articles of imperfect manufacture; and that, therefore, the profit to the exporter was less. To a very small degree this might' be so. [Earl Fitzwilliam the profit might be more.] He had shown that the increase in the export of the two sorts taken together was enormous, though the decrease on articles perfectly manufactured was in no proper- 493 tion to the increase on the other sort. Now, he could not see what particular ground of complaint a spinner employed in spinning cotton had, if there should be a certain diminution in the export of woollen manufactures to the particular place to which his cotton twist went. The increase in the export of cotton yarn was exceedingly great during the whole period of twelve years he had referred to, had the diminution in the export of perfectly manufactured goods comparatively trifling; and it was a remarkable fact, that, on dividing that term into three periods of four years each, it appeared that the second period, when the export was highest, comprised the years 1833, 1834, 1835, and 1836, when the average price of corn was lowest: when the duty was the highest, and when the importation was next to nothing. He did not wish to draw inferences at the present moment from these facts; but he thought he had stated enough to induce their Lordships not to place too much confidence in the opinions expressed by the noble Earl. As far as he was individually concerned, lie could say, that he had never supported any bill on the subject of the Corn-laws on any other principle than the strong necessity of not allowing this country to be dependent on foreign nations for the supply of the first necessary of life. The evils attending this course were, in his mind, far less than those that must result from a contrary line of proceeding. The noble Earl had complimented the noble Duke for the excellent manner in which he administered the large property of which he was possessed, and tie trusted, that those who were inferior to that noble Duke in wealth, rank, and station, and could not be like that noble Duke, the dispensers of great bounty derived from great possessions, were nevertheless influenced, not by the miserable, wretched, and selfish objects, that were sometimes ascribed to them, but by a sincere anxiety to do their duty to those who called upon them for support and protection.
The Duke of Rutland
said, he should always attribute the political conduct of the noble Earl opposite, who had introduced this discussion, to pure patriotism, and the desire of public benefit; but before he could change the opinions he had invariably held on this subject, the noble Earl must adduce very different arguments from those he had ever heard him bring forward in that House, for he did not think they could enact any better system, as regarded 494 this law, than that of the inverse ratio of price; so that when the price in this country was high, the duty should fade into nothing; and when the price was low, the duty should be such as should equally promote the interests of the home-grower and consumer. At that moment the labourers in that part of the country where he resided were getting from 13s. 6d. to 14s. a week, and, he had no doubt, they would prefer having corn at a remunerating price to their employers, with a high rate of wages, than low wages without corn being at such remunerating price. He hoped, also, notwithstanding what had been said by some noble Lords, that it might never be supposed that he, or those who thought with him on this subject, would be otherwise than anxious to hear the opinions of all classes of her Majesty's subjects on so important a question as the Corn-laws.
The Earl of Stradbroke
said, he could state most positively, that in the eastern parts of England, wages had risen with the price of corn, In the years 1834 and 1835, when the price was low, wages were only 8s. per week; hut when the price rose, wages had also risen to their present amount of 11s. and 12s. a week.
§ Earl Fitzwilliam
said, the case as quoted by the noble Earl opposite, very much con. finned what he had himself stated—whick was this, that the exports from this country of half-manufactured goods had increased, but the exports of complete manufactured goods to those countries of Europe in which we had not a monopoly were diminished.
§ Earl Fitzwilliam
proceeded. If our colonies increased in population, and we had a monopoly of the colonial markets, it was obvious, that the markets for our manufactures must increase, and, therefore, he said, that the markets where we had not a monopoly of articles into which the greatest quantity of labour entered; had diminished.
§ The Duke of Wellington
said, that from the year 1829 to the present year, the exports from this country had increased in official value from 56,217,000l. to 102,705,372l. The noble Earl was mistaken, too, as to the exports of complete manufactured goods, for those also had increased. Whatever, then, might be the case with regard to the Corn-laws, the returns from which he had just quoted, proved distinctly, that our manufactures and commerce could not be considered as in a very unfortunate state, either in reference to 495 quantity or value. But, although he differed from the noble Earl in some points, he cordially concurred with him in the feeling, that the prosperity of the agriculturist must depend on the general prosperity of the manufacturer, and of commercial interests in general. There could be no doubt about that, and these Corn-laws were supported, not with a view to the advantage of any particular interest or class of men, but with a view to render the whole country independent of foreign countries in respect of its supply of food. He believed, that all parts of the country, and every individual resident in it, were interested in this subject. And, although, what the noble Earl stated a few nights ago was perfectly true, that it was impossible that agriculture could prosper without their Lordships deriving great advantage from it, yet he gave their Lordships credit for promoting the objects of this law for the sake of the people at large, and not for any dirty object of private interest.
The Earl of Radnor
said, that if the object of these laws was, as stated by the noble Duke, to make this country independent of others for the supply of food, they had not answered the purpose for which they were intended. During the eleven years previous to 1839, we had imported more corn than in any eleven years before; it had, therefore, not rendered us independent of foreign countries for our supply of food. In fact, we had, during those eleven years, imported on an average 900 quarters of wheat per year, exclusive of the importation of flour and other species of grain. The noble Duke (Rutland) had said, that the price of wages had risen with the price of corn, but that had not been the case in the South. He knew, that in the southern and western parts of England, wages were on the same footing now as when the price of corn was much lower; and very naturally so, for wages did not depend on the price of corn, but, like other articles, on the supply in the market. With respect to the exports, the fact was, as had been stated by his noble Friend, that the export of finished goods had diminished in proportion to the unfinished. In 1829, the proportion was 61,000l. of perfect goods to 39,000l. of unfinished. In 1839, the proportion was exactly the reverse. It was 68,000l. imperfect to 32,000l. of perfect This was a great injury to the operative, who lost the employment which would be derived from finishing, and that too the most valuable part of the employment. No man 496 who looked at the returns upon the Table of their Lordships' House, or who took the least trouble to make himself acquainted with what was passing in the country, could for moment doubt, that the manufacturers of England were in a distressed state, and one of the proofs of this was to be found in the fact, that many of the manufactories were now working only half time. Their Lordships, he was afraid, were not sensible of the great distress which existed in the manufacturing districts. He would, therefore, beg leave to read an extract of a letter he had received from Manchester, dated May 16th. It was as follows: —
§ "The cotton mills in Stockport, Slalybridge, and Ashton, are nearly all working short time —four days per week. Two mills just beside where I live, will commence working five days per week, in the morning. The cotton trade is in a truly awful state."
He had received other letters from the manufacturing districts, describing the distress which existed there, the result of which was that:—
In Bolton, every eighth house, shop, or factory, is vacant.
In Stockport, about the same. Of the houses occupied, twelve and a half per cent, pay no rent.
In Ashton and Oldham, the unoccupied property is ten per cent, of rental.
In Manchester township, the proportion is eight per cent.
In Salford, ten per cent.
His informant also stated:—
I lately walked through a street with less than a hundred houses in it, of which two years ago, every one was inhabited, and counted twenty vacant.
At Ringley, between Manchester and Bolton, stands a large factory, the owner of which offers it rent free, with a bonus of 1,000l. a-year, to anyone who will work it, keep his machinery in order, and enable the tenants of his cottages to pay rent.
A factory at Garton, erected a few years ago, at an expense of 120,000l. was valued, eighteen months since, at 96,000l., is now on sale, and is not expected to fetch more than 45,000l.
§ He had also been informed, that it appeared from an inquiry instituted by the mayor of Manchester, into the state of the poor—that amongst 2,000 families, there appeared to be 21,417 pawn-tickets, for property of the value of 2,780l.., and amongst other 2,000 families, pawn-tickets for 2,835l., which would give for 10,000 families, the whole number whose cases 497 were investigated, upwards of 200,000 tickets, for property worth 41,700 l. He believed therefore, that the distress which existed was almost unexampled, and he had no doubt, that it was caused by the Corn-laws, which excluded our manufactures from the foreign market, and certainly," as the condition of our people showed, did not extend the home market. While he was on his legs, he would remind the House of the statements which he had made on a former occasion, with reference to the consumption of wheat in Ireland and Scotland. He had since then examined the returns laid on their Lordships' Table, and had found, that what he had stated, was quite accurate. He could but express some surprise, that noble Lords opposite, should have felt indignant at his having made statements which they must now know were perfectly true.
The Earl of Haddington
strongly denied that any such sentiment had been expressed at his side of the House as the noble Earl, who spoke last, appeared to suppose: on the contrary, he heartily rejoiced, that Scotland and Ireland were able to retain such increased quantities of wheat for their own consumption.
§ Lord Ashburton
wished to refer to one or two points which had arisen out of the present discussion. The official returns, in the first place, he would state clearly proved, that there was no progressive or habitual distress or decay in our commerce, and knowing, that great misery existed in the manufacturing districts, he was certainly surprised at this fact, and could not account for it. But admitting, that this distress existed, he believed, that they would enormously add to it by the adoption of the measures which the noble Earl opposite (Earl Fitzwilliam) recommended. Distresses at Manchester and Birmingham, especially at the latter place, had been more justly attributed to the disturbed state of the currency. The report of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce established this point. The prosperity of the manufacturing interest had grown up under and was cotemporaneous with the present Corn-laws. It had risen from and (with occasional fluctuations) had gained its strength under the very laws, which, it was alleged, caused its ruin. All the large speculations were entered into by the manufacturers—the principal wealth of the country flowed from the manufacturing towns. The great part of the capital, both of the railways in his own county, 498 and of the eastern counties railway belonged to Manchester and Birmingham, and he ventured to assert, that of the 60,000,000l. invested in railway speculations, 50,000,000l. came from manufacturing towns. In his opinion, therefore, it was both the grossest folly and injustice on the part of the manufacturers to endeavour to put down the other interests of the country, and at the same time by this means to destroy their own home markets. If the Government had never agitated this question, if the Corn-laws had not been put forward as the cause of the existing commercial distress, such an idea would never have crossed the minds of the merchants or manufacturers. The question was one which caused the strongest excitement and suspense in the feelings of large classes of the people, and the noble Viscount, in opposition to his own declarations and the Government with whom he acted, incurred a most serious responsibility by again causing its general agitation. The report of the Chamber of Commerce to which he had already alluded, concluded by stating, that all speculations would be stopped, and trade severely checked, until the question was settled. He would only refer to one other point connected with this question. It had been alleged that this country was unable to provide a supply of corn equal to the demand, and that there was a constant necessity for the admission of foreign grain. But how were the real facts of the case as proved by the Parliamentary returns? Why, it was there shown, that in the years 1838 and 1839, a supply from foreign countries was wanted, but that in the six preceding years, 1837, 1836, 1835, 1834, 1833, and 1832, the supply of England and her colonies was sufficient for her consumption. In the four years preceding 1832, there was also a necessity for a small assistance from abroad, but in the seven previous years no such necessity existed, and the supply was amply sufficient. These facts proved, that in the long run of years, and under ordinary circumstances, our own supply was sufficient; and the very ground on which all the arguments against the Corn-laws were founded, was thereby cut from under the feet of their opponents. As the noble Earl had not entered at length into the various points connected with the question he (Lord Ashburton) should not feel himself justified in doing so; but if the noble Earl had considered the subject in all its bearings and ramifications, he should have been prepared to follow him, 499 and to prove, that the present Corn-laws fully answered the purposes for which they were enacted.
§ Earl Fitzwilliam
said, it was quite true, when we had more than an ordinary supply of corn, that we did not want a foreign supply. When he had spoken of these Corn-laws as being new, he had been found: fault with as misstating the case. But the noble Lord (Lord Ashburton) said, that they must look back to the year 1815, when the new law was introduced.
§ The Earl of Hardwicke
stated, that this was the first time, that a Government came down to Parliament and proposed to; impose a direct tax on bread. He contended, that this was the case, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated, that he expected to raise 700,000l.. by means of his corn duties.
§ Lord Ashburton
said, that on a former occasion he had mentioned the very extravagant and absurd opinions which were to be found in the report of the committee on export duties. He had before complained of the manner in which the inquiry had been conducted. None but free-trade philosophers were on the committee, and they only examined persons whose opinions were in accordance with their own. He might mention Mr. Hume, Mr. M'Gregor, and Mr. Porter, of the Board of Trade. It was the bounden duty of the Government, in a matter of such importance to have, at least, one of its Members on the committee to watch the proceedings, and it was most unfair that this report should be circulated throughout the country in the way it was, evidently to answer a party purpose, that of exciting agitation on the subject of the Corn-laws.
The Earl of Radnor
defended the gentlemen alluded to by the noble Lord, and contended, that more efficient and able public servants were not to be met with, than Mr. M'Gregor, Mr. Hume, and Mr. Porter. The evidence given by these gentlemen before the committee which the noble Lord had referred to, was of the most valuable nature, and he was satisfied, would produce the strongest effects throughout the country. He did not find any opinions of these gentlemen in favour of free-trade at all stronger than those given on the same subject a few years ago, by the noble Lord himself.
§ Lord Ashburton
denied, that he had made any attack on the three gentlemen alluded to; on the contrary, he believed, that they were most efficient public ser- 500 vants. At the same time, they were strongly biassed in favour of certain opinions, and they were examined by gentlemen who entertained similar opinions to themselves. The consequence was, that their evidence before the Import Duties Committee, was altogether of a partial nature. He could not help strongly condemning the conduct of the Government, in sending persons about the country for the purpose of producing excitement by means of the exaggerated statements contained in that report.
§ The Earl of Clarendon
felt bound to rise and give the most unqualified contradiction to the unwarrantable statement of the noble Lord, that the Government had sent persons about the country for the purpose of getting up agitation on this subject. The noble Lord might assume, that the committee of the other Mouse, to which he had alluded, had put forth the most absurd and ridiculous opinions, but he would tell the noble Lord, that the country took a very different view of the report, and of the evidence taken before that committee, and which lie was satisfied would not only be found to be one of the most important documents ever submitted to Parliament, but one which would produce the most important results. It had not only been extensively circulated throughout this country, but had also been circulated in great numbers on the confluent, and had been reprinted in several different languages. Upwards of forty-six thousand copies of it had been circulated at home, and these had not been distributed by means of either public or private subscription, but had been regularly sold to persons who bought them for the purpose of reading them. The noble Lord might designate the opinions expressed in that report as absurd, empirical, and ridiculous; but he contended, that the report was nothing more than a fair embodiment of the opinions of the chief witnesses examined before the committee. Nothing in that evidence went so far in favour of free-trade as were the opinions formerly expressed by the noble Lord himself, in his speeches in another place on the subject of the Corn-laws. Those speeches were a most valuable repository of evidence in favour of free-trade, although they were diametrically opposed to every opinion on the subject now professed by the noble Lord. The noble Lord in 1815, and subsequently, 501 gave utterance to opinions which were infinitely more extravagant than anything that was to be met with in the evidence before the import duties committee. The noble Lord said, in 1815, in the House of Commons, that the proposed Corn-law would impose a tax on corn to the amount of eighteen millions and a half a year, and he complained in the strongest terms that this tax was not to be levied for the purposes of revenue, but merely with the view of putting the amount into the pockets of the landlords. Although this took place, in 1815, the noble Lord now pleaded his excessive youth for the opinions be then expressed. Now, this was twenty-five years ago, and if they took the estimate of the noble Lord, it would make between threeand400,000,000 that the landlords of England had taken from the pockets of the people by means of the Corn-laws. He would ask the noble Lord whether any opinion nearly so extravagant as this was given before the import duties committee?
The Earl of Wicklow
said, that the noble Earl might rely upon it that much weight would not be attached to his contradiction as to the conduct of the Government, when it was recollected what had taken place. It was well known to the country; it was well known to every man that bad paid any attention to the proceedings of Parliament, that the noble Viscount at the head of the Government, made a speech last year, in which he condemned, in much stronger terms than had been used by any one else, the agitation of the subject, or the proposition for such changes as her Majesty's Ministers now proposed. After this it was impossible for any man not to believe, that her Majesty's Government had taken up the subject as a party question, and as that alone. He, however, would tell the Government, that they would totally fail in their object, for conduct so unworthy of the character of Ministers of the Crown must ruin the character of the Government in the estimation of the people. He should not have troubled the House, but he felt bound to say this much, after the observations of the noble Earl.
observed, that the noble Earl had stated, that the report of the import duties committee had been extensively circulated, as well on the continent as in this country. If this was the case, it was very unfortunate that the ex- 502 amination before it had beene onducted in the way in which it was. The witnesses entertained strong opinions in favour of one view of the subject, and they were examined by persons who entertained similar opinions to themselves. There had been no cross examination of the witnesses. He could not tell why persons of opposite opinions did not attend the committee, but such was the case. That was not the mode of examination calculated to elicit the truth.
The Earl of Radnor
contended, that the committee was fairly appointed. If the noble Lord thought, that the report was so extravagant and absurd, why did he not move for the appointment of a committee, when he could rebut the erroneous opinions, and counteract the effect of the poison which he alleged was to be met with in the import duties report. If the noble Lord did this, he might not only call fresh witnesses, but the public would have the advantage of his cross-examination of Messrs. Macgregor, Hume, and Porter.
§ Lord Ashburton
said, that the committee had been agreed to upon the usual parliamentary understanding that it should be fairly composed. There were put upon the committee two or three gentlemen opposed to the repeal of the Corn-laws. But no notion was entertained that any design of taking evidence against those laws existed. It was the duty of the Government, in a case of so much importance, to take care that the committee was attended by some one or two persons at least connected with the Administration. The noble Earl must know that it was never the habit of any committee to sit upon a subject, of this magnitude without the Government proposing to bring forward some measure. The noble Earl had taunted him with the desertion of opinions which he had entertained when a very young man, twenty-five years since. The course which he took upon that occasion had been misrepresented. The real circumstances of the case were these:—Sir H. Parnell proposed 86s. as the price at which foreign corn might be imported; the Government proposed 80s.; and he moved that the price of 76s. be substituted. He might have expressed himself strongly as to the danger which might result from an excess of protection to the landed interests. The principle which he wished to establish was that of fair pro- 503 tection. If a fair protection was proposed for any branch of commerce, trade, or manufactures, and the protection could be properly conceded without injury to other interests, he was as ready to extend it as any man in public life. But if, on the contrary, a measure was brought forward which he did not think consistent with the general interests of the country, he would feel it his duty then, as now, to oppose it. If the noble Earl could prove to him that an unlimited free trade would be consistent with the safety of the country and the large interests at stake, he would then become an advocate for it, not caring one straw for what might be said about his consistency.
The Marquess of Normanby
was desirous that the House should not be unaware of the mode in which the noble Earl opposite (Wicklow) had risen to make what he considered a most unfair and uncandid attack upon his noble Friend at the head of the Administration, who happened then, for the first time during the evening, to be absent from his place. The discussion which had arisen upon the presentation of a petition had been protracted for two hours, and the noble Viscount retired in the conviction that the discussion had terminated. The noble Duke opposite, who was also a most regular attendant at their debates, had likewise left the House in the same conviction. He begged to remark, that no recent change whatever had been made in the intentions of the Government. Every item in their plan had been determined upon by them long before the Easter recess, and in no single respect had the slightest change arisen from any of the events which had since taken place. Why choose the period when his noble Friend happened to be absent to bring forward a charge which he must characterize as neither very fair nor very candid?
The Earl of Wicklow
said, that he had not taken any part in the present discussion until the noble Earl opposite had spoken and had attempted to justify the Government, of which he was a Member, for their conduct with respect to the present measure. It had been in answer to that defence that he had made the observations against the noble Viscount, who was, though in his opinion he ought not to have been, absent; and these observations, he must say, were directed against the Government generally, and not par- 504 ticularly against the noble Viscount. This had been the first year in which the Government had taken up the subject as a Government, and it was against the Government, and against the Government alone, that his remarks were made. But with regard to the noble Viscount himself, he had no hesitation in saying that a more inconsistent line of conduct he had never read or heard of in the whole course of his political experience, and this he would as readily—in fact a great deal more readily —repeat when the noble Viscount was present than in his absence. It was unfair on the part of the noble Marquess to say, that his observations were made in consequence of the absence of the noble Viscount. He could positively declare that it was not the case, and he appealed to his conduct ever since his entrance into public life as a proof of his assertion. He had said, and he would again repeat it, and the country, he believed, entertained the same opinion, that never was a more inconsistent line of conduct pursued by any politician than by the noble Viscount on the present question; and that the explanation which the noble Viscount had offered had still further lowered him in the estimation of their Lordships and of the country.
The Marquess of Normanby
did not complain of the noble Earl's motives, but his acts. He must repeat, that the noble Earl had seized a most unfortunate opportunity, and had made what he considered an uncandid attack.
said, that having heard both the original remarks of his noble Friend behind him (the Earl of Wicklow) and the reply of the noble Marquess, he could not think that the language used by the noble Marquess was at all suited to the circumstances of the case. It could not be fairly said, that his noble Friend "had taken an opportunity" at all. His noble Friend had expressed his opinion on the question before the House, and upon the conduct of the Government connected with it; and surely the accidental circumstance of the noble Viscount's absence ought not to have prevented him from so doing. The general conduct of his noble Friend on all occasions proved that he would express his opinions at all times, and to all men; and the just censure which he had passed upon the Government could not for a moment be supposed to have been in the 505 slightest degree influenced by the absence of the noble Viscount.
§ Conversation ended.